What works best about Miranda Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the rare album that actually seems to improve over time, is its attention to broad structure: the way Lambert takes a particular word, turn of phrase, or theme from one song and uses it in a different, often inverting context elsewhere, giving the album a real depth that’s often overshadowed by her outsized tales of shotgun-wielding and barroom intimidation. If she holds true to that already pretty spectacular form and continues to demonstrate this same kind of conceptual sophistication on “Dead Flowers,” the first single from her third album (due in September), the track gives her plenty of material to work with and just as many reasons to be optimistic about the quality of that upcoming record. Offering a surfeit of dense, loaded phrases and sharply drawn images, the song hits with devastating accuracy because of how well Lambert sustains its central conceit. At turns blunt (there’s a finality to the way she sings the line, “They’re sitting in the vase/But now they’re dead,” in the opening verse) and poetic (the parallel she draws between the titular flowers and a string of burnt-out Christmas lights makes for a simile that’s as effective as it is clever), the verses outright grieve for a failed relationship, only to explode into the refrain’s barbed accusations.
If that refrain lacks a conventional lyrical or melodic hook, which makes the single more of a grower than “Kerosene” or “Gunpowder and Lead,” Lambert’s powerful vocal more than carries the dramatic narrative forward. Having already proven herself to be the most nuanced interpretive singer among her contemporaries, her voice has gained more substantial heft during her two years on tour, and here she provides a perfect example of well-controlled restraint. Her measured performance is matched by the song’s arrangement, which, as was the case on “Gunpowder,” swells in tandem with the lyrics, giving the single the kind of structural awareness seldom heard on country radio. That arrangement doesn’t fit neatly into any contemporary country trends: Few pop-country acts would foreground this track’s excellent steel guitar run in the mix, but the heavy drums and pulsing guitars would also scare off most traditionalists or staid Americana acts. The crescendo of ringing electric guitars and percussion in the song’s final throes recalls, of all things, Coldplay’s “Yellow.” Whether or not that makes for a good choice for a country single remains to be seen, but “Dead Flowers” makes it clear that Lambert is more interested in forging her own artistic path than in bending to ill-fitting trends set by far lesser talents.