has faced her share of crap over the last four years, and her high-profile status surely hasn’t done much to help sweeten the stink. She divorced husband Blake Shelton in 2015 and returned the following year with some of her best work yet, The Weight of These Wings, one of Paste’s favorite country releases of the 2010s. Then, in 2018, she joined forces with with her band The Pistol Annies and sang about divorce, jealousy and weed, among many other topics, on their cathartic Interstate Gospel. Somewhere along the way there was an incident with a salad (which TMZ and other gossip websites ate up like a $14 Sweetgreen) and plenty more interview questions about what it’s like to “be a woman in country music.” Then, finally, some peace: Lambert re-married in January to New York City police officer Brendan McLoughlin, whom she met on the set of Good Morning America, as she told the New York Times. She was performing with the Annies; he was doing security. In the last 12 months, the tabloids have continued to eat her alive, relentlessly picking apart her marriage. But Miranda? She’s unbothered.
“Here and there, I see myself at Kroger,” she told the Times. “I sell magazines—I guess I’m still interesting.”
Which brings us to one line in particular on her wonderful new album Wildcard: “I got a pretty good time in the checkout line / With all the free press I’ve been gettin’,” she sings on the psych-country jam “Pretty Bitchin’.” As usual, Lambert’s making the best of her lot, sifting through the bad luck to reveal golden country nuggets.
On Wildcard, she’s sharper and funnier than ever. It’s easily one of the best country albums of the year, even as Lambert spends a good chunk of the record rocking out like her life depends on it.
There’s another verse that’s bound to swirl around in your head for weeks after the first listen: “Put that sucker on spin,” Lambert repeats on the punchy pop-country single “It All Comes Out in the Wash,” which was co-written with certified hitmakers Lori McKenna, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey, aka the Love Junkies. Lambert likens romantic blunders to ketchup stains and social taboos to Merlot messes, as if trying to convince herself, or maybe a friend: We can be cleansed of all our stains and smudges—even the messiest splatters—if we just carry on. Dating your friend’s ex? No big deal. Embarrass yourself in front of your grouchy mother-in-law? Ain’t no thang. “All the mistakes, all the wild streaks,” she sings. “That’s why the good Lord made bleach.”
Maybe you’ve never dumped a salad on someone’s head or divorced a judge on The Voice, but chances are you’ve had your share of spills, too. Country music has always been a working class calling card, the problems and pain of everyday folks made musical. Lambert upholds that philosophy on Wildcard, wearing her origins on her sleeve from the get-go. Miranda is the heroine of real-life southerners on “White Trash,” where she, like Kacey Musgraves once did on “Dime Store Cowgirl,” admits she can’t always gloss over her red-dirt roots. “Dog hair on the Restoration Hardware, who says you can’t have nice things?” she sings. Hers is a world where Busch Light and Veuve Clicquot are both on the menu.
One of Lambert’s trademarks is her ability to weave nostalgia with ballsiness in her music, and she nails it again here. The devil-may-care attitude she first showed us on her spicy 2005 debut Kerosene is still in full force (see: “Tequila Does”). But her tender side, which she first revealed in 2009’s Revolution, peeks through on some of Wildcard’s best tracks. On the hopeful “Bluebird,” she sings, “34 was bad / So I just turn to 35.” Butterflies abound on “How Dare You Love,” and she plots her own fairytale escape à la the Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away” on the lustrous “Fire Escape,” one of those rocking country romances that sounds even sweeter when you let go of all cynicism.
Lambert channels the Dixie Chicks again on murder fantasy “Too Pretty For Prison,” a duet with fellow country rulebreaker Maren Morris. It works like a modern retelling of “Goodbye Earl,” or maybe a sequel to Lambert’s own “Gunpowder & Lead,” in which a narrator confronts domestic violence. On “Holy Water,” she folds in a little funk and gospel with that signature dirty twang and it still works, even if it sort of resembles an overly gritty TV show theme song written by Portlandia’s fictional BWOW band. Her voice slips into a classic country rock squawk on the dusty railway jingle “Locomotive,” and after hearing the fuzzy heartland musings on “Track Record,” I’ll be damned if Ms. Lambert hasn’t been blasting The War on Drugs for the better part of two years.
“Life’s pretty weird, life’s pretty great,” Lambert sings on the aforementioned “Pretty Bitchin’.” She’s been through hell and back and now that she’s on the other side of it, she just might be the realest star in country music—she’s certainly in the running for the biggest. Like Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound, Wildcard feels like Lambert’s rock ‘n’ roll introduction. But, if you’ve been paying attention, Lambert has always been a rockstar. She’s been spittin’ fire since she signed to a label in 2003—probably long before that—and her IDGAF attitude has long sounded strong with screeching guitars and thrashing drums. Lambert is an outlaw, and she’s also an album artist, and Wildcard proves she’s one who will be rebelling, experimenting and rocking the hell out for many years to come.