The bulk of what’s been written about Miranda Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend leading up to its hotly anticipated release has focused on how the tone of her marketing has changed of late, attempting to position her as country music’s resident bad girl. That impulse to label is a fairly easy one to understand, as it perpetuates a straightforward image for Lambert, an artist of impossibly broad talent whose path to success (from a third-place finish on Nashville Star to a co-starring role in the failed Piper Perabo vehicle Slap Her…She’s French to a platinum-selling debut album, 2005’s Kerosene, that sold big with negligible support from country radio) hasn’t made a whole of sense.
Particularly when considering the positive attention that Kerosene‘s incendiary title track received—it’s her lone Top 20 hit, landed her a surprise Grammy nomination, and is one of the rare country singles to rank in the Top 40 of the Pazz & Jop poll—and the fact that most everyone, quite rightly, seems to have come to their senses regarding country music’s prior resident bad girl, Gretchen Wilson, there’s certainly a case to be made that Lambert’s attitude and her timing are both right for her to adopt that role. And there’s no denying that some of the personal details that she’s discussed in interviews—she has a concealed-carry license, she spent her short break from touring on a hunting trip, and her parents were Pis involved in the investigation of the Bill Clinton/Paula Jones hoo-ha—lend an authenticity to her tales of firearms, infidelity, and hard living. Honestly, when so many country “artists” mistake audience pandering (i.e. putting Illinois native Wilson in a Confederate flag shirt on her homepage, or the current dead-end trend of using other artists’ names as the titles of singles) for authenticity, it’s more than a little bit refreshing that Lambert has a point of view that’s bound to make some people uncomfortable.
That said, all of the focus on image ultimately does a disservice to Lambert and to what she’s accomplished on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, because it makes it too easy to overlook or misinterpret the sophistication of her songwriting, the full range of intense emotional experiences that inform her writing, her ongoing development into a singer of remarkable depth of expression, and the extent to which she understands the critical difference between a marketing ploy and an aesthetic. Kerosene was country music’s strongest major label debut since The Dixie Chicks’ Wide Open Spaces, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend works in almost exactly the same way as did the Chicks’ stellar sophomore album, Fly: She’s made a dead-on accurate assessment of what worked best about her debut, and enhanced those elements with greater confidence and an artistic persona that’s distinctive, and combined all of it into a record of thematic coherence and heft. Perhaps the most fully-realized mainstream country album released so far this decade, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an album that alternately embraces and challenges genre conventions in ways that would be entirely lost on many of country’s biggest radio acts.
The album opens with the literal bang of “Gunpowder And Lead,” on which Lambert plans her revenge on an abusive man. The production on the track is structurally perfect, using little more than an ominous acoustic guitar figure in the verses (where Lambert, playing up the most girlish tones of her voice, refers to herself as “little ol’ me”) before the song explodes into the chorus as she goes home to wait by the door with a lit cigarette and a loaded shotgun. One of Lambert’s many strengths as a songwriter, and something that draws a parallel to the writings of genre legends like Kris Kristofferson and Dolly Parton, is the way she varies her rhyme schemes to emphasize a point; in the last lines of the song’s chorus, for instance (“Slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll/Now don’t that sound like a real man/I’m gonna show him what a little girl’s made of/Gunpowder and lead”), the use of blank rhyme gives the song a real sense of finality. It’s that degree of skill and attention to detail that elevates Lambert above her contemporaries, and most every song on the album has either a surprising trick or an unexpected turn-of-phrase that speaks to the unique brand of poetry in the best country songwriting.
But what makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend such a step up from its predecessor is how Lambert has expanded that attention to detail to include an entire song cycle. This isn’t a concept album in the vein of, say, Allison Moorer’s The Duel, but it nonetheless impresses for its coherence. With the lone exception of the admittedly fun “Dry Town” (one of just three cover tunes on the record, and one written by no less than David Rawlings and Gillian Welch), the emotions conveyed in every song are clearly reflected elsewhere on the album. On “Gunpowder And Lead,” for example, when Lambert snarls, “And he ain’t seen me crazy yet,” that’s a promise she carries over into the title track (which is the country equivalent of Beyoncé‘s “Ring The Alarm” in most every possible way) and, later, the stirring admonition of “Down,” when she warns any would-be suitor, “When the storm hits you won’t have a prayer” before practically begging them to stay away altogether.
That’s just another thing that the hellraiser image tends to overlook; there’s a palpable rage to many of these songs, sure, but it’s tempered by a keen self-awareness and a clear recognition of the difficult consequences of such fiery emotions. Perhaps the most telling line on the album comes on the devastating “More Like Her.” Watching as her ex returns to the arms of a former lover, she sings, “She don’t have too much to say when she gets mad/I guess I should’ve been more like that.” The loss itself stings, but it’s the reasons for it that cut, and Lambert sings it with a heady mix of regret, jealousy, and bruised pride.
In that regard, Lambert has developed into a singer of exceptional range. While she may not have the pure technical gifts of certain other beautiful, young, blond, former talent-show contestants, the two exceptionally well-chosen cover songs that close the album showcase what a superlative interpretive singer she’s become. Rather than attempting to one-up Patty Griffin’s furious version of “Getting Ready” from Children Running Through, and having already gone the angry route earlier in the record, Lambert sings the song with a smirk, transforming it from an anthem of self-empowerment into a kiss-off of vicious, bitter wit. Even better, though, is her version of “Easy From Now On,” a song co-written by Susana Clark and the criminally underappreciated Carlene Carter and popularized by the incomparable Emmylou Harris. While Harris’s version emphasizes the glimmer of optimism that comes from ending a bad relationship, Lambert sounds as though she’s trying to convince herself of something she doesn’t believe to be true. There’s still a definite bitterness here (the key lines of the refrain are, “It’s gonna be easy to fill/The heart of a thirsty woman/And harder to kill the ghost of a no-good man”), and an overwhelming sense that her past may have finally caught up with her. It’s an extraordinary song on its own, made all the more effective because it gives the album a fascinating, loaded conclusion that speaks to what’s come before and hints at a new direction.
Country music has traditionally been a singles-oriented genre. Among its legends, it’s often difficult to find an entire proper studio album to recommend as an essential listen, and few of the current A-list stars have released full albums that are more than three surefire hit singles and a glut of soundalike filler. So an album like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is exceedingly rare for its genre, even at a time when a small group of major label artists have released work (like Gary Allan’s Tough All Over or Julie Roberts’s Men & Mascara, or even Big & Rich’s two deeply-flawed albums) that shows greater vision and ambition. The album’s few flaws—the inclusion of “Dry Town,” the gunshot sound effect at the end of “Gunpowder And Lead,” and the not up-to-snuff chorus of “Down”—are of little consequence when compared to its real mettle. Hell, there’s probably a good 5,000 words to be written just on the way these songs fly in the face of the genre’s historically and presently conservative gender politics. Brash, insightful, wry, and, above all else, smart, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend confirms that Miranda Lambert is far more than just the latest in a long line of bad girls: She’s a country music legend in the making, and the most vital artist Music Row has produced in a generation.