Lambert speeds down the interstate while country music’s stuck on back roads
Robert Ascroft / Courtesy of the artist
Few symbols evoke the feeling of freedom better than the wild horse, a symbol baked into American mythology, particularly that of the American west. It’s appropriate, then, that Miranda Lambert, whose Texas roots run deep, would title her new album Palomino: Her eighth solo LP, the album comprises 15 tracks about breaking free, whether running from something that no longer serves her or speeding toward something that does.
Despite its name, Palomino is, at its heart, an album about the freedom afforded by the open road. Fast cars, a wanderer’s anonymity, seedy truck stops and the thrill of road-worn possibility have long made fruitful fodder for Lambert and her heavily narrative songwriting, though never so much as on this new album, which finds the sweet spot between two of her most recent projects: 2019’s Grammy-winning, rock-influenced Wildcard and 2021’s Grammy-nominated, collaborative acoustic album, The Marfa Tapes.
Lambert produced Palomino alongside frequent collaborators Jon Randall and Luke Dick, both of whom also show up frequently across the LP’s songwriting credits. Randall, along with Jack Ingram, joined Lambert on The Marfa Tapes, so it’s fitting that three of that album’s songs – “In His Arms,” ”Geraldene” and “Waxahachie” – reappear here, though this time in far more fleshed-out form. Fellow close collaborator Natalie Hemby notches several co-writes, too, with extra help from Music Row mainstays Jesse Frasure (“If I Was a Cowboy”) and Aaron Raitiere and Mikey Reaves (“Country Money”). Country is the bedrock of Palominobut Lambert and company also weave soul, gospel, blues and Southern rock into the mix.
As with many 2022 releases, Palomino was born, in part, during the pandemic’s quarantine, a circumstance that bleeds into Lambert’s lyrics. Unable to tour or travel, Lambert instead pays fantastic visits to such far-flung locales as Cambodia and the Mojave Desert in song, all strung together in a loosely conceptual journey. Over the course of her two-decade career, Lambert has established her own American iconography, which is especially evident all over this record: shiny El Caminos with tinted windows, neon pink sunsets framed by a rearview mirror and nameless roadside motels housing peculiar characters. Where so many country artists are still, somehow, stuck on back roads, Lambert is speeding down the interstate, chrome hubcaps kicking up dust and obscuring her view from anyone naïve enough to give chase.
Opener “Actin ‘Up” is steeped in Lambert’s brand of sass and swagger, with a low, loping riff offering a groovy pocket for her playfully clipped cadence at the track’s verses. “Even Tiger Woods couldn’t swing it this good / I’m actin ‘up,” she sings, and it’s quickly evident the Lambert of Palomino has healed, or at least moved on, from the raw grief displayed on 2016’s critically acclaimed The Weight of These Wings.
“If I Was a Cowboy” contrasts Lambert’s queen of the road bravado with the stark reality that men are more likely to be afforded such a freewheeling lifestyle. “If I was a cowboy, I’d be wild and free,” she sings, later encouraging a new generation of would-be wanderers with a line that nods to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson: “So mommas if your daughters grow up to be cowboys, so what? ”
The Tom Petty-esque “Strange” comes closest to offering some kind of commentary on current events, with Lambert decrying “coyotes on [her] left and wolves on [her] right “and advising listeners to” do anything to keep you[rself] sane. “But like the characters in many of these songs, Lambert zips past the issues of the day in favor of escapism.
While it may not seem like an obvious pairing, Lambert and beloved Athens new wave outfit The B-52s sound like the world’s best bar band on Palomino highlight “Music City Queen,” a playful, propulsive jaunt about hopping on a real riverboat in Nashville. Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson land their trademark call-and-response vocals at the track’s bridge (Fred Schneider offers delightful “She’s a showboat, baby!” Interjections), with larger-than-life harmonies that connect the dots between uptown art pop and Little Big Town.
Another standout is a cover of “Wandering Spirit,” the title track off Mick Jagger’s 1993 third solo album. Lambert remains faithful to Jagger’s version – still there is the slinky, impatient electric guitar so prominent on the original – tapping fellow country singer-songwriter Sarah Buxton and Nashville gospel outfit the McCrary Sisters to up the song’s soul, for a crescendo worthy of a roadside tent revival. “Country Money” is an infectious, refreshing foil to the genre’s bloated catalog of songs about lean living, like Blake Shelton’s cringey, out-of-touch “Minimum Wage” and Thomas Rhett’s pandering “Church Boots.” Instead of faux-lamenting the hardships of country life, Lambert celebrates those who’d prefer a top-of-the-line tractor to a Tesla.
Palomino may not become a critical darling a la The Marfa Tapes or The Weight of These Wings, but it offers an album-length look at what makes Lambert’s best songs work so well: a healthy dose of freewheeling fun. As she puts it herself, sometimes Lambert just needs to act up.