I think this is the most excited I’ve been for a new Miranda Lambert era and album in years, and I certainly didn’t expect to say that coming off of Wildcard.
Granted, I realize I’m in a small (but, apparently, vocal) minority of folks who felt that album was merely the commercial comeback album following the more interesting The Weight of These Wings and reeked of label interference. And given how Lambert feels closer to home within the independent country scene than she does mainstream Nashville these days, I certainly found the idea of a commercial comeback somewhat pointless anyway … and then “Bluebird” somehow became her first No. 1 single in a decade, and “Settling Down” became a solid top 10 hit.
Suffice it to say, I once expected to write a very different preamble ahead of whatever would come next for her, but at the end of the day, this is Miranda Lambert. Chart hits or not, she’s going to record what she wants – it’s how we got her Marfa Tapes collaboration with Jon Randall and Jack Ingram that ended up forming one of the best albums of 2021. And between that album and me liking the lead single to Palomino, “If I Was A Cowboy” – especially since she ditched Jay Joyce and co-produced it herself alongside Luke Dick and the aforementioned Randall – I was even more convinced that the Wildcard era had served its purpose and that I could once again be excited for a new Lambert era.
If you’re sensing a “but” coming, though, it’s unfortunate, but you’re right. And as much as I hate framing it like that, especially as someone who’d gladly stand up for most of her solo work, all of her Pistol Annie projects, and The Marfa Tapes and considers himself a Lambert fan, when placed just within the context of solo Lambert albums, Palomino is a tough album to properly judge. On one hand, yes, it is absolutely an improvement from Wildcard. And aside from The Weight of These Wings, I could even argue that it’s her most consistently solid project since maybe Four the Record. But it also carries over far more bad tendencies from Wildcard than I’d otherwise prefer, and knowing what Lambert is capable of at her best … I can say Palomino is an improvement, but it’s not really a return to form.
And though, again, Jay Joyce is nowhere to be heard on this album, I still hear his influence in a lot of the instrumentation and production, particularly in the moments like “Actin’ Up” and “Scenes” where the bass and percussion don’t necessarily blow out the mix but certainly feel obstructive in the vibe they’re setting – I mean, I’d call it a greater attempt at funk if there was any sense of flow, texture, or decent sense of groove present there. And like with that last album, Lambert herself, though a fantastically emotive singer that can carry her tunes with a lived-in sincerity, often feels like she’s positioned a shade too low in the mix, muting her impact and never grabbing attention the way she normally can, which absolutely undermines the Mick Jagger cover of “Wandering Spirit.”
Granted, one could argue she doesn’t need to be front and center, given that she isn’t really the hell-raiser she normally can be anywhere on this album, but the moments that do and don’t work in tone are absolutely jarring. Because, yes, on one hand, you’re going to get a few Marfa Tapes cuts thrown in for good measure – not necessarily the ones I would have personally preferred, but that spacious, windswept rollick bouncing off the lighter guitars on “In His Arms” fits the wide-eyed and lonesome troubadour character arc she’s built for herself on recent albums far better than on that aforementioned album. And that’s not even counting the even bigger glow-up “Waxahachie” gets with that great burnished groove bouncing off the slightly faster tempo.
But you’re also going to get “Geraldene,” which strips away the fun banter that really is the only reason that track worked before and swaps it for buzzy guitars that feel undercooked in trying to, like “Actin’ Up” and “Scenes,” go for direct funk and ends up feeling oddly hollow, instead. And that collaboration with the B-52s on “Music City Queen” … exists, but there’s absolutely no chemistry there and it ends up feeling really cringeworthy as a whole. Granted, I’ll take a track going for dumb, harmless fun over “Country Money,” a “country folks out here just doin’ our thaaaang” song that, for one, I would have expected to be better coming from a writer like Lambert, but absolutely crushes its textures into pure sludge and sounds like a mess overall with that out-of-place vocal filter.
Granted, those are all tracks with other issues, so it’s telling that the tracks to feel more organic and natural for Lambert are the ones where she’s doesn’t try to aim for cheap humor and, instead, captures that wandering troubadour spirit that’s propelled some of her best work as of late. Sure, it’s debatable whether or not she’s maybe overdone this arc ever since The Weight of These Wings, but when she infuses that searching with a deeper message, the payoff is noticeable. It’s one reason I still really like “If I Was A Cowboy,” where she plays with gender signifiers to highlight how her outlaw tendencies might be viewed different – hell, maybe even outright praised – if she was male, not to mention how the rickety rollick of those acoustics against that spacious backdrop allows that Palomino spirit to, if you will, run wild.
And it’s especially apparent when, at the end of the day, she and her characters are simply in search of the same simple pleasures anyone else likely is at any given point in time: kindred spirits who understand her pain on “That’s What Makes the Jukebox Play” which nails the drowned-out misery perfectly; or heck, even just one kindred spirit who understands her and one she could maybe learn to love and have them love her back on “In His Arms”; or even end that search altogether and maybe finally call someplace home, like on “Tourist” or “Waxahachie.”
Once again, too, Lambert resorts to a circus-themed song akin to, say, “All Kinds of Kinds” or “Two Rings Shy” to hammer in what being on the other side of that search is like on “Carousel,” where her fling with a partner is short-lived but very impactful, only for him to disappear in search of the next show and force her to pick up the pieces and move on, even if means essentially starting a new life. And it’s absolutely a fantastic closer, where it’s pretty apparent by Lambert’s delivery early on that she’s going to step directly into the role of the lover left behind by how emotionally raw it is. But it also highlights my issues with Palomino as a whole that intertwine with the songwriting. This is an album with decidedly lighter stakes in its mood and framing. But there’s a difference between “light” and “disinterested,” because for the most part, you’re not going to get those songs with deeper storytelling detail like “Carousel.” It’s actually fitting that there’s a song called “Scenes” here in which Lambert describes her wandering journey as just moving from one scene to another, because those loose snapshots are mostly what’s offered here and little else.
And when said writing feels like it’s resorting to awkward punchy quips or cutesy material, it’s not exactly new for Lambert and certainly isn’t a bad thing on its own, but it is when it’s missing the crux of something deeper to anchor its point. And it doesn’t help matters either when Lambert herself often sounds distanced from that material to make it any fun; “Music City Queen” and “Country Money” are awkward, and that’s being gentle. I may like the Nirvana-inspired riff of “Strange” from “Polly” well enough, but with a main hook that basically speaks to events of the past few years, you’d think there’d be more here than vague metaphors sketched and details over what actually feels strange to her, not to mention a better attempt at saying something other than, “Who cares? Have a drink and a smoke.”
It’s a song like that which only highlights how her best tracks here are when there’s actual regret over wanting something more other than settling for a middling feeling, and aside from “Country Money,” that final third or so of the album greatly saves it. But it’s also another album that feels compromised, elevated by Lambert’s natural quality that still beats many of her contemporaries, and a few scattered excellent tracks that nevertheless can’t mask the duds trying to go in a completely different direction. And you don’t know how much I didn’t want to come to that conclusion with Palomino, especially on an album she co-produced this time around. But after the career high-point of The Marfa Tapes from last year that she absolutely carried, this isn’t punching on that level, and that’s a real shame.
- Favorite tracks: “Carousel,” “Waxahachie,” “That’s What Makes the Jukebox Play,” “In His Arms,” “Tourist,” “If I Was a Cowboy”
- Least favorite track: “Country Money”
- Favorite individual moment: When she switches to the first-person perspective toward the end of “Carousel” and really lets that hurt sting.