'A Graceful dismount,' for a change...
When country superstar Miranda Lambert announced a new album this year, I vindictively held out hope for 2016's answer to “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” the 1968 Tammy Wynette tearjerker about emotionally distant mates who spell out the word “divorce” in arguments to keep their 4-year-old from noticing his nuclear family flying apart. Miranda’s four-year marriage to singer Blake Shelton ended last summer, and by autumn, he was stepping out with his co-host on The Voice, Gwen Stefani. I needed a new Miranda Lambert album to clean a few clocks, but the Texas star’s newest, The Weight of These Wings, doesn’t dig into the specificities of its emotional trauma so much as take inventory of reasons to be happy in spite of them, over Lambert’s most ambitious batch of songs to date.
Miranda’s latest isn’t your average celebrity breakup album, and it’s not your average big-box country album either. From the very earliest, the singer, her band, and her go-to producer Frank Liddell keep this thing sounding spontaneous and live. Flubbed takes and vocal tics are left in. The fuzzed-out guitar in “Ugly Lights” delivers beautiful melodies through a cloud of static. Experiments in tone are matched by the album’s race through nearly half a dozen different kinds of country: “Keeper of the Flame” is in part a sprightly one-chord stomper in the style of Wilco’s “War on War.” “To Learn Her” and “For the Birds” hew toward the honky tonks. “Good Ol’ Days” is a stately country-pop ballad. Miranda’s effortless vocal is the guiding light: She can draw it up into a sneering swagger or drip it over hushed guitars like tears.
The Weight of These Wings accomplishes all this by punching up the length. It’s a double album, 24 songs split in two halves titled "The Nerve" and "The Heart." "The Nerve" concerns the audacity of carrying on living when it feels wrong to. The broken-heartedness never receives a name, but a deep discomfort lurks in the bar anthem “Ugly Lights,” where our singer parties amid “Romeos and Juliets that bummed all of my cigarettes” only to stumble home alone when the house lights come on, and cuts like “Pink Sunglasses” and “Covered Wagon,” smart additions to the long line of Miranda Lambert songs that use mundane objects as set pieces for moments of profundity (“Bathroom Sink,” “Me and Your Cigarettes,” “New Strings”). Escapism is the understated mission, self-care eked out hour by painstaking hour of drunk nights, road trips, and therapeutic shopping. It isn’t until disc-one closer “Use My Heart” that The Weight of These Wings starts to dig deeper than self-medication.
"The Heart" examines loss and aimlessness more closely. “Tin Man” pens a letter to the Wizard of Oz character about abandoning his quest to be more human: “You ain’t missin’ nothing, 'cause love is so damn hard / Take it from me, darling, you don’t want a heart.” “Things That Break” and “Well-Rested” plot a trajectory between carelessness and drift and the death of a romantic relationship. (The former: “I’m hard on things that matter / Hold a heart so tight it shatters / So I stay away from things that break.”) The distress reverberating through the downcast observational notes of the album’s first half crystallize into sober reckoning in these moments, like someone getting sick of their own clumsiness and sorting out the cause through deep, quiet personal reflection.
What sets The Weight of These Wings apart from your run-of-the-mill breakup record is the coupling of attention to the unexpected behavioral manifestations of heartbreak with an adult acceptance of responsibility and a commitment to stitching a broken heart back together. Many classics of the form — and make no mistake, that’s what this is — excel at one or two of these but few juggle them all. Ryan Adams’s Heartbreaker is a gripping diorama of big city brokenness whose only real flaw is a naïve clueless as to how the circumstance came to be. (“Oh! Why do they leave?”) Lemonade dragged the world through every salacious detail of a near-divorce but steels its mythical rage so thickly that even the warm reconciliation at the end feels like an act of mercy. That’s not to say that Miranda’s evenhandedness is somehow more enlightened or self-aware; it’s just a humbling gesture, since we would’ve lapped up a Blake takedown from country’s self-professed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend like honeyed milk. Positing The Weight of These Wings as her journey from the restlessness of “Runnin’ Just in Case” to the self-sufficiency of “I’ve Got Wheels,” instead of a flight from some nefarious him, is a graceful dismount.