Four the Record
[Rating: 4.5 stars]
Today in Nashville only Taylor Swift and the Civil Wars have more crossover appeal, but neither act is as unapologetically country as Miranda Lambert, who has managed to build a sizable fanbase without checking her twang. Like she’s mixing a cocktail and won’t say what she’s making you drink, the Lindale, Texas native has her own special blend of country and classic rock, and around the time the room starts spinning, you’d swear her secret was a dash of punk insouciance.
On her first two albums, Lambert’s tales of murdering abusive men exploded country’s tasteful decorum and struck a blow for badass women everywhere. She may have backed off the guns and violence, but Revolution and now Four the Record retain all the pain and personality that drove those dark songs and redirect her energies toward some of her best and most eloquent singing and songwriting yet.
For an artist who seems actively to court listeners who normally don’t fess up to being country fans, Lambert has shit luck with packaging. Four the Record may be a horrible title, but even it doesn’t deserve a cover as atrocious as this one, whose poop-brown palette and obvious airbrushing makes Satan Is Real look sophisticated and urbane. To give her the benefit of the doubt: Maybe Lambert is consciously handicapping her songs to make it fair for other Nashville artists.
Because these fourteen songs (fifteen if you spring for the deluxe edition) may have been written by or co-written with others, but Lambert makes them indelibly her own. Even when the material isn’t up to her standards, as with first single “Baggage Claim” (a metaphor stomped on by a gorilla), she inhabits them with posies and precision, compensating with a fully invested and quite surprising performance. At times it sounds like she’s rewriting the rules as she goes along, adding a vocal filter to “Fine Tune” and radio static to “Easy Living” without sounding fussy.
Or maybe there’s no such calculation at all. Lambert may just be that gutsy an interpreter and musician, and it’s to her considerable credit that the effort rarely shows on Four the Record. “Safe”—one of two songs she wrote by herself—makes fetching a beer sound like the most selflessly romantic act imaginable, and “Fine Tune” somehow makes distorted vocals, a auto(mobile)-erotic metaphor, and a loose reggae beat sound like baby-making music. Even her “oh my god” deserves its own cult following.
Four the Record is sequenced to play up the various aspects of Lambert’s persona: the bad girl on “Fastest Girl in Town,” the cheating lover on “Dear Diamond,” nobody’s fool on “Nobody’s Fool.” The final third will fool anyone looking for fireworks, but she may be at her best covering Gillian Welch and singing a relatively simple tune like Allison Moorer’s “Oklahoma Sky.” That song’s long, slow fadeout reveals an artist who has learned first and foremost to be patient and give herself over to the songs. Lambert understands they won’t let her down.