Having come into her own on her extraordinary sophomore album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Miranda Lambert expands on her fascinating, fully realized artistic persona on Revolution. She pushes harder into her gun-toting, cut-a-bitch image with a refreshing fearlessness, but she balances her most rebellious narratives with moments of mature, clear-eyed introspection that illustrate the exact precision with which she controls her artistic identity. Not that Ex-Girlfriend hadn't already made it abundantly clear to those who were paying attention, but Revolution puts to rest any lingering doubts that Lambert's persona is one-dimensional or a simple caricature or gimmick. "I'm not easy to understand," Lambert sings on "Makin' Plans," one of three songs she wrote alone for the album, and she spends the duration of the record backing up that claim.
As was the case on her first two albums, the devil is in the details with Lambert's songwriting. On the terrific, biting dis track "Only Prettier" she dismisses an enemy with the loaded, self-deprecating line "I got a mouth like a sailor and yours is more like a Hallmark card" before deriding her opposition for being too thin. It's tempting to read the song as a veiled dig against her saccharine, artistically underfed contemporaries on country radio, and she addresses that subject more explicitly elsewhere: "Maintain the Pain" opens with the couplet, "I put a bullet in my radio/Something just hit me funny, I don't know." No stranger to tales of shotgun-wielding, she turns in a fantastic cover of Fred Eaglesmith's politically charged "Time to Get a Gun" (which boasts a great backing vocal by the Steeldrivers's Chris Stapleton), stripping the song of Eaglesmith's ironic remove and crafting instead a complex, frustrated testament to the second amendment. She's more far more vengeful on "Sin for a Sin," a co-write with boyfriend Blake Shelton, and a fiery cover of Julie Miller's "Somewhere Trouble Don't Go."
The record isn't all fire and brimstone. Lambert explores the idea of being unfairly judged for her vices on "Heart Like Mine" and considers the consequences of those vices on songs like second single "White Liar" and "The House That Built Me." These moments of introspection are no less revealing or authentic than the harder-edged material: The line "But I was born a red dirt girl" pays a dead-on accurate tribute to Emmylou Harris, one of her most obvious artistic forbearers, on "Airstream Song." Whether admitting to her own dishonesty on "White Liar" or calling herself a bad habit on "Me and Your Cigarettes," she is all too willing to admit her own shortcomings and take responsibility for her role in relationships that have soured. That's what elevates Lambert above other would-be bad girls: She understands the implications of her behavior, both for herself and for those around her.
That self-awareness gives real weight to the sensitivity and restraint she shows when things are going well. The lovely album closer "Virginia Bluebell" recalls her breakthrough hit "Me and Charlie Talking" for the way Lambert treasures and nurtures the song's central relationship. "Makin' Plans" doesn't take love for granted, with the narrator singing of plans to be made without disclosing the specifics, giving the subtle implication that some things are best kept private. The song impresses all the more for its economy of language, yet more evidence that Lambert understands the conventions of true country songcraft better than any of her peers.
It's in that regard that Revolution can make for a challenging listen. From the Beatles-esque pop of "Cigarettes" to the ringing, stadium-rock coda of "Dead Flowers," there's little on the record that immediately rings true as country music. Lambert's sound has always been aggressive, but her previous efforts found a more effective balance between her hard-rock impulses and her love for traditional country. Here, "Only Prettier" opens with a brief bit of honky-tonk twang before the production explodes into straightforward guitar-rock. To her credit, Lambert sells it. "Maintain the Pain" kicks off with a distorted guitar riff that apes Nirvana's "Come As You Are" and is as aggressive as anything to come out of Nashville since the heyday of the Kentucky Headhunters. Lambert wails the song's chorus with real conviction and, along with "Dead Flowers," it shows how much more powerful her voice has become since her debut.
That works to her advantage since, even on the album's more restrained cuts, producers Frank Liddell and Mike Wrucke force her to shout over arrangements that are pushed so far into the red that it's a wonder the needle on their monitors didn't break off. Even if the intention was to play up Lambert's rock-chick cred, Revolution is marred by its heavy-handed engineering. The straightforward country-pop of "White Liar" and "Airstream Song" is smothered on what is one of the worst sounding albums ever to come out of Nashville.
Which is by far Revolution's greatest liability. While there is some concern that Lambert has been co-writing with composers who are significantly less skilled than she ("Love Song," on which she shares credit with Shelton and the two men of Lady Antebellum, is hands down the weakest song in her entire catalogue), her writing here is still on point. And with Eaglesmith, Miller, and John Prine among the artists she's chosen to cover, Lambert continues to impress with her razor-sharp instincts for finding material that is both top-shelf in quality and that plays to her strengths as perhaps the finest interpretive singer of her generation. It may be easy to wish that Revolution boasted the same structural heft as Ex-Girlfriend or that the production included some more of the traditional country that Lambert does so well. But those concerns are of little consequence when considering that Revolution reaffirms that Lambert is more interested with following her own creative muse and not the dictates of contemporary country trends. A dense, challenging record, Revolution once again finds Lambert setting the benchmark for the country genre even as she begins to consider the possibilities beyond its borders.