Despite years of admirable effort, Nashville’s attempts to rock out can still tend to come off pretty hammy. Then you get something like “Mess With My Head,”a searing standout from Miranda Lambert’s seventh LP, Wildcard. Over sleek drums and noir guitars, the country queen unspools steamy psychodrama, singing about her mind as a luxury hotel suite open for 2 a.m. room service: “I know why I gave the keys to you,” she intones, before a chorus that sounds like Sheryl Crow under the influence of Hole’s Celebrity Skin. It’s the sound of a freewheeling star at the top of her game, reimagining rock history in her own platinum image.
Wildcard is full of moments like that. It sharpens the atmospherically gritty feel of Lambert’s last album, 2016’s The Weight of These Wings, a double LP recorded after she divorced Blake Shelton that had more in common with self-searching Seventies opuses like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass than with anything on country radio. Along with longtime A-list songwriting collaborators like Natalie Hemby, Liz Rose, and Lori McKenna, she brought on producer and guitarist Jay Joyce, who has helmed records by Cage the Elephant and Eric Church.
The rock touches are smart and perfectly in keeping with Lambert’s ability to bridge high-end glammy and front-porch real: “Way Too Pretty for Prison” cleverly opens with a noisy guitar scrum that evokes Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak,” then turns into Lambert and guest Maren Morris’ hilarious spin on the classic feminist outlaw murder fantasy: She’s got an asshole husband, but rather than deep-six the guy themselves, they hire out the job because they might end up in jail, where the “lunch trays don’t come with chardonnay.” Elsewhere, the speedy Seventies-tinged “Locomotive” signifies its rawness when Lambert sings, “I ain’t no Napa Valley/New York City seems OK.” On the softer side there’s “Track Record,” a gorgeous ode to her errant romantic ways that recalls the War on Drugs’ shimmering indie-rock guitar pastorals.
Lambert’s Texas honky-tonk brio and charisma-bomb sense of humor goose every song, especially when the musical fruit hangs a little lower — like on “White Trash,” a hick-hop ode to gated-community crashing (“Dog hair on the Restoration Hardware/Who says you can’t have nice things?”), and the country-rock invite “Pretty Bitchin’,” which rhymes with “help yourself to the Tito’s in the pretty kitchen.”
Moments like these remind us that adventurous music doesn’t need to be as self-serious as many of today’s pop stars seem to think. But that in no way means Lambert is soft-peddling her ambition; see “Holy Water,” a gospel-tinged country-blues anthem about religious and political corruption as a literal stain on the land: “You can’t skip a stone where the river’s all but gone,” she warns. Her expansive vision of down-home America makes it a place worth fighting for.