It’s been three years since Miranda Lambert released The Weight of These Wings, a double-disc examination of the regrets, rebounds, and emotional resets that follow a divorce. At 24 tracks, the album’s running time gave her more than enough room to indulge her musical whims, from impressionistic Americana — a sound that nodded to the moody murk and woozy, water-colored production of Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball — to raw, rough-edged roots-rock. The result was a supersized record that didn’t consolidate her strengths as much as emphasize their full, unabridged scope.
Wildcard tells a more concise story. There’s new blood in the mix, from Lambert’s reshuffled band (including drummer Fred Eltringham, a former member of the Wallflowers who jumped ship for Sheryl Crow’s band in 2012, and bassist Joel King, who remains one of the Wild Feather’s three frontmen) to producer Jay Joyce, who replaces longtime collaborator Frank Liddell.
There are new emotions at play, too. Lambert’s happy again, wedded to a New York City cop and living part-time in the Big Apple, and while her writing still explores the dark corners of heartbreak and hangovers, she approaches those topics with bright, self-effacing humor and countrified cheek. And for longtime fans who miss the sonic scorch of songs like “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder and Lead,” Wildcard reignites the country-rock roar of those early hits, with Joyce’s production — a meticulous, genre-jumping jumble of live vocal performances, guitar pyrotechnics, digitally-doctored banjo riffs, synthesizers, and pedal steel — often serving as its own spotlight-worthy instrument.
Here, we break down Wildcard‘s 14 tracks ahead of the album’s November 1st release.
1. “White Trash” (Miranda Lambert, Luke Dick, Natalie Hemby, Laura Veltz)
Jay Joyce makes his presence known during the album’s first five seconds, where the countrified twang of a banjo is thrown into relief by the percussive thump of a hip-hop drumbeat. This is still the Lambert show, though, and she begins Wildcard by proudly waving her hillbilly flag. “I can keep the lights and water on, but I can’t keep my white trash off the lawn,” she sings, all attitude and no apology. You can take the girl out of the South…
2. “Mess with My Head” (Lambert, Dick, Hemby)
Lambert’s first platinum hit, “Kerosene,” pointed to a healthy appreciation for rock & roll, but if that song was rooted in Steve Earle’s blue-collar punch, then “Mess With my Head” has more in common with the neon of 1980s mainstays like Cyndi Lauper and the Cars. The bridge is Lambert at her most adventurous, all chopped-up synthesizer loops and stutteringly polyphonic drums, while the chorus is radio gold, spiked by stabs of electric guitar and sighs of pedal steel.
3. “It All Comes Out in the Wash” (Lambert, Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, Liz Rose)
Tide receives a shout-out — perhaps the detergent company’s first nod in country-music history — during this tribute to the great spin cycle of life. “Every little stain, every little heartbreak, no matter how messy it got. . .you throw it all in and you throw that sucker on spin,” Lambert sings, while her band makes a slaphappy mess in the background.
4. “Settling Down” (Lambert, Dick, Hemby)
The open road has always ranked highly on Lambert’s list of go-to muses, ever since “New Strings” announced her intention to “grab the wheel and point it west” back in 2005. Here, she weighs her wanderlust against a growing desire to plant roots “I’m one heart going both directions,” she sings as Fred Eltringham’s percussion evokes the anxious tick-tock of a faster-than-usual clock.
5. “Holy Water” (Lambert, Brent Cobb, Mike Harris, Joshua Taylor)
Southern gospel and back-porch blues rub shoulders on “Holy Water.” Jay Joyce ties the package together with slide guitar and harmonies worthy of a Sunday morning congregation, but it’s Lambert’s voice — full of blue notes and rusty-throated rasp, as though she enjoyed a late, sinful Saturday night before stumbling to church sometime after daylight — that steals the show.
6. “Way Too Pretty for Prison” (Lambert, Lindsey, McKenna, Rose)
Move over, Dixie Chicks; there’s a new group of homicidal heartbreakers in town. Accompanied by Maren Morris, Lambert fantasizes about exacting some “Goodbye Earl”-worthy revenge upon a cheating man. From the messy, cymbal-clattering intro to the singalong chorus, “Way Too Pretty for Prison” weaves from lyric to lyric like the town drunk — which is appropriate, since this is the kind of plan you hatch after one too many carafes of Chardonnay.
7. “Locomotive” (Lambert, Ashley Monroe, K.S. Rhoads)
Lambert and company pull out of the station at top speed with this breakneck banger. Honking harmonica and overdriven guitar make “Locomotive” one of Wildcard‘s louder moments, while Lambert’s voice — coated with a light layer of slap-back echo, like she’s howling her lines from the live room at Sun Studios — drives everything forward like a half-lit conductor.
8. “Bluebird” (Lambert, Dick, Hemby)
“If the house keeps on winning, I’ve got a wildcard up my sleeve,” Lambert sings, name-checking the album’s title over atmospheric layers of pedal steel that drift skyward. Cyclical and compelling, “Bluebird” is a reminder to stay resilient and determined, no matter who’s trying to clip your wings.
9. “How Dare You Love” (Lambert, Monroe, Jamie Kinney)
Wildcard barely makes mention of Lambert’s marriage to Brendan McLoughlin, which makes this gorgeous ballad — written alongside Jamie Kinney and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe — an album-wide rarity. She repeats the title over and over during the song’s simple, straightforward chorus, as though her good fortune has rendered her too lovestruck to say anything else.
10. “Fire Escape” (Lambert, Lindsey, McKenna, Rose)
Now a part-time Manhattan resident, Lambert pays tribute to New York City’s favorite kind of emergency exit with this shimmering, minor-key highlight. As the first chorus gives way to the second verse, waves of reverb-drenched pedal steel riffs glitter somewhere beneath Lambert’s vocals, like a thousand hazy, soot-smudged windows dotting the city skyline.
11. “Pretty Bitchin'” (Lambert, Dick, Hemby, Jon Randall)
Miranda takes stock of the blessings around her, giving thanks in her own expletive-filled way. There’s a lot to be grateful for — her truck, her Airstream trailer, her stock of Tito’s vodka — and even the grocery-store tabloids, which have been airing her dirty laundry since her marriage to Blake Shelton began going south, can’t sour the sweet mood. “I’ve got a pretty time in the checkout line with all the free press I’ve been getting,” she sings, tongue firmly in cheek and middle finger raised to the sky.
12. “Tequila Does” (Lambert, Randall, Jack Ingram)
This border-town ballad finds Lambert weighing the merits of romance and reposado, ultimately choosing to stick with the harder stuff. The chorus, with its Texas-sized twang and vintage sway, scratches the same nostalgic itch as Midland’s best work, while the clever lyrics nod to influences like Guy Clark and John Prine.
13. “Track Record” (Lambert, Lindsey, McKenna, Rose)
Anchored by a pulse-pumping drumbeat that lands somewhere between the Reagan-era country of Rosanne Cash’s Seven Year Ache and the retro pop/rock revivalism of the War on Drugs, “Track Record” finds Lambert owning up to her checkered past with men. “I can’t help it; I’m in love with love,” she sings, delivering a few shots to her exes along the way.
14. “Dark Bars” (Lambert, Rose)
Lambert trades the bright lights of outside for the murky depths of an anonymous bar, where she sits “on a barstool for the cheap thrills, watchin’ drunks all drown with no lifeguard.” Written with the Love Junkies — the songwriting supergroup of Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey, and Liz Rose — “Dark Bars” ends Wildcard with a slow, sad waltz.