If her first three albums were all about using genre archetypes and a whip-smart songwriting voice to develop an artistic persona of nearly unprecedented depth and complexity, Miranda Lambert’s fourth album, Four the Record, is all about risk calculus. Though she’s never adhered to the strict guidelines that Music Row tends to impose on its artists (and on its female artists, in particular), Lambert has never flaunted convention as willfully or as recklessly as she does on her latest album. There’s always something to be said for artists who are willing to experiment and push boundaries, but Four the Record is the first album of Lambert’s career wherein her reach exceeds her grasp. More problematically, however, is that it’s also the first album of her career that doesn’t really have the same depth of narrative and character development that’s made her the most vital country artist in decades.
Tellingly, Four the Record is the album that Lambert has had the least hand in writing, and the album suffers for its lack of her distinctive voice. Though songs like opener “All Kinds of Kinds” and Brandi Carlile’s “Same Old You” are fine enough on their own merits, they lack the scope Lambert has brought to her original compositions. Kacey Musgraves’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” makes for a fun listen, but none of its lines have any trace of the wit that Lambert showed on similar bad-girl vamps like “Only Prettier” or “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” so it plays out as though she’s covering a song that’s blatantly derivative of her own, superior work.
Perhaps more troubling than an issue of diminished returns is that several of the songs Lambert did co-write are nowhere near as sharp as her previous material. Lead single “Baggage Claim” takes a novel spin on the construct of emotional baggage and stretches it far beyond any semblance of internal logic, resulting in a hodgepodge of mixed metaphors, while “Fastest Girl in Town,” a co-write with Angaleena Presley, squanders a couple of genuinely great lines on a one-dimensional character sketch that pales in comparison to the songs Lambert, Presley, and Ashley Monroe wrote for their fantastic Pistol Annies side project just a few short months back. It’s not that the songs are bad per se, it’s that Lambert, even as part of a side project, has set a standard for herself that she struggles to live up to on Four the Record.
The obligatory collaborations with new hubby Blake Shelton fare the worst and are the two weakest tracks Lambert has recorded to date. Monroe co-wrote “Better in the Long Run” with Gordie Sampson and Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley, and the song has far more in common with the completely faceless pap on Lady Antebellum’s Own the Night than with anything else Monroe has done. Shelton’s overwrought performance is symptomatic of the problems with his Red River Blue, and Lambert sounds outright bored by lyrics like “I can’t unlove you just because you say it’s better in the long run.” In promoting the album, Lambert has professed a personal connection to “Over You,” a song she co-wrote with Shelton, inspired by the tragic death of his older brother when he was 14. Lambert has never been one to shy from difficult topics, but the sentiment behind the song is undermined by some truly awful rhymes (“Mid-February/Shouldn’t be so scary/It was only December/I still remember”) and a chorus that doesn’t actually match the meter of its simplistic lines (“You went away/How dare you/I miss you/They say I’ll be okay/But I’m not going to/Ever get over you”) to the rhythm of the song.
Four albums into her career, those are the types of sloppy songwriting mistakes that are beneath a writer of Lambert’s caliber. And the better tracks on Four the Record only further highlight that there’s quite a lot here that isn’t up to her usual standards. Gillian Welch’s “Look at Miss Ohio” is the best-written song in the set, building a narrative of real complexity from just a couple of economic phrases and some sly pronoun reversals, while “Safe,” which Lambert wrote entirely on her own, includes some unconventional but evocative western-themed imagery. “Dear Diamond,” her other solo writing credit, is one of the only songs on the album to toy with her public persona in the meaningful ways standout songs like “Famous in a Small Town” and “More Like Her” have, and it’s also one of the few songs on the album that doesn’t spell out its narrative in the most literal terms. That the incomparable Patty Loveless provides harmony vocals only elevates the song further.
Looking to so many outside writers for the first time was a major risk for Lambert, and it’s one that doesn’t consistently pay off. But the risks that she, Frank Liddell, and Mike Wrucke take in the album’s production are far more rewarding and ultimately make Four the Record a captivating listen. The chorus of “Mama’s Broken Heart” rocks as hard as anything Lambert has ever recorded and works like a son of a bitch when paired with the relatively minimalist arrangement given to the song’s verses. The acoustic guitar and handclaps groove on “Baggage Claim” recalls the best of Sheryl Crow, and the low-key shuffle of “Same Old You” would have been cast as “alt-country” a decade ago. To that end, Lambert’s reading of “Look at Miss Ohio” is to-the-note faithful to Welch’s original; if it’s an atypically rote cover for Lambert, it does still fit with the album’s overall aesthetic, which takes its cues from, but isn’t limited by, contemporary country.
The album’s most progressive cut is sure to be its most divisive. “Fine Tune” lays down a distorted, heavy blues stomp right out of PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire?, and Lambert turns in her most aggressive and expressive vocal performance through a haze of phase-shifted fuzz. The arrangement complements Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird’s creative use of automotive images, and it all scans as country in just the most peripheral sense: The track splits the difference between the Cardigans’ best tracks and Liz Phair’s lo-fi peak, and it’s the lone moment on Four the Record when the risks Lambert has taken result in something flat-out brilliant.
The rest of the time, she has to settle for merely pretty good. And, like Phair, Lambert falls into the category of artists who have proven that they’re capable of creating provocative and fascinating art, so “pretty good” qualifies as a let down. The thoughtfulness and the insight that have made her previous albums such phenomenal standard-bearers for modern country just aren’t as well developed on this album. Without a thematic through line or recurring lyrical motifs or meaningful efforts at myth-building or any of the other sophisticated flourishes that have made her albums so rich, Four the Record is left as a solid collection of better-than-average songs cast in arrangements that offer a progressive take on modern country. It’s just a testament to what Lambert can do at her best that an album this good feels like a disappointment.