The short version: While it’s wonderful to hear Miranda Lambert find peace on ‘Wildcard,’ between bad production and safe writing, it’s easily her worst album yet.
- Favorite tracks: “Dark Bars,” “Track Record,” “Mess With My Head”
- Least favorite track: “Pretty Bitchin’”
- Rating: 5/10
The long version: To say Miranda Lambert has had a rough last few years would be an understatement, and that’s not just in reference to her personal turmoils.
When Lambert released The Weight Of These Wings in 2016, it felt like she was trending in a new direction, one that pushed her into independent country territory with a lack of care for radio play to boot; and that’s about what happened. The album saw her sifting through the pieces of her turbulent past to craft a raw, cutting double album, yet while the critical acclaim was there, her chart success waned at country radio.
Then again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just like how The Weight Of These Wings was caught between two sides, so is country music at large now. On one hand, Nashville, for whatever reason, continues to chase after mediocrity and music that resembles rejected pop B-sides; meanwhile, the biggest artist in country music right now is Luke Combs, and the burgeoning independent scene can no longer be ignored. And when looking at Lambert’s newest album Wildcard, it also scans as a tale of two sides. On one hand, the album features a plethora of co-writes from some of the best writers in the format currently, including Lori McKenna, Brent Cobb, Jack Ingram, Liz Rose, and, of course, Lambert herself. On the other hand, this is also the first time Lambert has worked with producer Jay Joyce, who has a spotty track record, at best.
On those merits, it’s hard to know how to judge Wildcard. On one hand, if The Weight Of These Wings caught her at her absolute lowest for the entire world to see, Wildcard is her declaration that she’s back in a big way. Yet for a multitude of reasons, Wildcard is an absolute mess, and while it’s great to have Lambert back, this scans more as a record label compromise after The Weight Of These Wings failed to gain radio traction, if anything.
And even if this is Joyce’s first time working with Lambert, the production choices are nonsensical. Whereas he’s been able to bring a raucous edge to Eric Church and Little Big Town (to mixed results on both accounts), Wildcard feels hazy and too synthetic to flatter Lambert’s natural tendencies, with the only moment of real edge coming through on “Locomotive,” which isn’t really a highlight. The sad part, too, is that underneath some of the bad production tactics is a set of fairly good tunes.
But with Joyce, it’s always been an issue of mix balance, where he tries to go for heavier grooves, but often contradicts them with fractured instrumental tones. Opener “White Trash” is the perfect example, which opens with a terrible-sounding, blocky guitar tone and spiky banjo line and other indiscernible elements to sound like a bad clash of ideas. “Mess With My Head” may be able to barely find a decent groove with the murkier guitar lead, but it’s another example where everything feels overmixed.
And it’s overmixing that ruins so many tracks here, like how “Holy Water” tries to go for southern-gospel-meets-funk, yet can never settle on a consistent groove or place the backing singers in the right place in the mix. “Way Too Pretty For Prison” has a pretty janky, nasty guitar to serve the seedier lyrical content, yet the focus is on both Lambert and Morris, who, when consistently pushed into their lower ranges, sound absolutely terrible together.
On the note of vocal production, though, Lambert is not the kind of singer one buries in the mix, if only because her subtle deliveries are often the highlights of her material. Lambert and synthesizers don’t go together anyway, but she should never sound this heavy in the mix, especially on tracks like “Settling Down,” “Bluebird” or “How Dare You Love,” all of which have their subtleties stripped away because of that. But flip the script for something more hard-charged on “Locomotive,” and when Lambert isn’t at the front of the mix for a song like that, it ends up contradicting the feeling of her coming through with as much intensity as she should. The only moments that sort of work are the new wave groove of “Track Record,” which sounds a little too close to The War On Drugs, but still remains fairly great, and “Dark Bars,” which closes out the album in a lonelier atmosphere than one might expect for this album.
On a positive note, though, this is also the most exuberant Lambert has sounded in years. Sure, she stumbles on some fairly grating, monotone deliveries on “White Trash” and “Pretty Bitchin’,” once again not helped by the vocal production, but one does generally get the sense that she’s found some sort of happiness. She’s going to lean all in on the fun that the tabloids are having on songs like “Track Record” and “It All Comes Out In The Wash,” and even if “Mess With My Head” is incredibly seedy, she completely owns it to surprisingly great effect.
Ironically, though, Wildcard is even a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to lyrics and themes. Again, The Weight Of These Wings was Lambert baring her heart and soul out to the world, so anything coming off that was bound to have lighter stakes. But even if Wildcard does have its brighter moments, they feel too thin and inconsistent across the entire album. I understand “Way Too Pretty For Prison” isn’t meant to be taken incredibly seriously, but I also don’t buy that the same artist who recorded “Gunpowder & Lead” would even hesitate to stand up to an oppressor.
And still, there’s a difference between “lighthearted” and “lightweight,” and the latter is where Wildcard mostly falls. That’s not to say that there isn’t some cleverness to the execution of songs like “White Trash” or “It All Comes Out In The Wash,” but Lambert is capable of more, and she shows that on Wildcard in spots. If there’s any theme to the album, it’s that Lambert, while in a better place, is still trying to understand herself. “Track Record” really spells it out in one song, and if anything, Lambert is aware of her destructiveness toward love. She’s going to lean all in on “Mess With My Head” and “How Dare You Love” by asking those more complicated questions of herself, and by the end of Wildcard, it feels like she’s found at least some type of solace. Though it’s interesting to have Wildcard, an album where Lambert mostly tries (and, truthfully, fails) to have fun with her detractors, end with “Dark Bars,” a track where she mostly looks on at the other broken souls in the lonely bar, but still finds something therapeutic in knowing she’s walked through the same darkness; this is the same raw, powerful side of Lambert that shows her at her best, not lines about getting “frisky with your boss at the copy machine” (from “It All Comes Out In The Wash”), an ill-fitting line, especially for 2019.
And even if Wildcard is Lambert’s shortest album in quite some time, it doesn’t mean some tracks shouldn’t have been left on the cutting room floor. Whereas “Track Record” manages to be clever while also peeling back the curtain on Lambert’s inner struggles, a track like “Pretty Bitchin’” feels oddly safe, which is a shame considering it could have been used as a shot against members of the media who’ve had fun dragging her name around for clickbait. And, sadly, even if tracks like “Dark Bars” and “Bluebird” find Lambert content with chasing after her own artistic aspirations over commercial appeal, it feels wrong coming off this album.
And that’s the tough part about Wildcard – it’s wonderful to hear Lambert in such high spirits again, but the album is also her worst yet. I said before that both Lambert and country music at large are at a crossroads, and Wildcard, sadly, sounds like her record label’s attempt at reviving any goodwill with country radio, which is a shame, since she’s capable of so much more.