The title of Mary Lambert’s debut, Heart on My Sleeve, reads like a concise manifesto of her work as a singer, slam poet, and, most famously, hook-crafter for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s Grammy-winning “Same Love.” Opening the album with the lines “I’ve got bipolar disorder/My shit’s not in order,” on lead single “Secrets,” seems like an air-clearing gesture, a declaration that no material will be too sacred or too personal. The song’s tone and tempo, however, lift these personal admissions into the realm of bouncy, windows-down radio pop, as Lambert backs her lines with a peppy handclap/thigh-slap pattern, a driving 4/4 beat, and joyful horns. She ends the song with a snippet of what sounds like an opera aria followed by a raucous giggle, thus showcasing both her vocal training and ability not to take herself too seriously.
Many of the songs on Heart on My Sleeve express a variation on that opening song’s sentiment—the sense that her feelings are too intense to be contained within her body. “Rib Cage” constructs a physiological metaphor that, in its gory specificity, reflects the singer’s physical and emotional openness: “Everybody look around/I don’t know how to fill the space/The invitation’s on the page/Open up my rib cage.” In Lambert’s lyrics, sexual desire and devotion always register viscerally, even violently, and there’s a sensuality to her writing whether that longing is requited or rebuffed. In the spoken-word “Dear One,” she muses, “How can I spell your name without the sound of autumn underneath my tongue/Without acknowledging the lovers who bent me in half?” Even if certain passages verge on the heavy-handedness that one might find in a high school literary magazine, there’s a brazenness to Lambert’s self-exposure and a particularity to her diction that distinguish her from other open-hearted songwriters.
Less evident here is the political urgency underpinning the hook Lambert wrote for “Same Love,” in which she declares “I can’t change/Even if I tried” and which she expanded into a full-length song portraying a same-sex relationship on an earlier EP. Her cover of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,” however, accomplishes some of that status-quo subversion, as it inverts the singer’s gender and replaces the testosterone-fueled bombast of the original with nothing but plaintive piano chords and Lambert’s delicate falsetto. Her interpretation of the ’80s classic lands well among original compositions that display her willingness to challenge stigmas about sexuality, body image, and mental illness.