The comedian Alex Horne once described Britney Spears’ difficult days as a ‘mental safari’. I was reminded of this when Miranda Lambert told Bob Harris that the concept for this album, her ninth, was a trip to 36 different places.
I think Miranda is one of the most important country artists of the last 50 years. The sales figures and many awards speak for themselves, but she has been allowed to do things her way in her own time. Her career includes: three albums as one-third of the Pistol Annies with her mates Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley; a high-profile marriage to Blake Shelton who wrote the excellent song Over You, which would be a career song for many artists but was just another smash for the former Mrs Shelton; and a series of massive international tours including dates at the O2 Arena.
Palomino is one of the most interesting albums released by Music City in recent years. As Tim and Luke and Brad and Keith and Blake – the stars whom Miranda has rubbed shoulders with on radio in her career – offer new music to their core fanbase with diminishing returns, Miranda seems to get more popular and better with age: the fine wine of country music.
Her main collaborators are Natalie Hemby, Luke Dick and producer Frank Liddell, while the songwriting team of Jack Ingram and Jon Randall was highlighted on the understated Marfa Tapes album from 2021. Jon and Luke co-produce Palomino with Miranda, who at this point knows how she wants to sound.
Because of the Marfa Tapes, fans know three of the songs on Palomino, which have been fleshed out, though not by much: In His Arms and Waxahatchie both has some extra depth in the production but the same melodies are delivered with identical panache and longing; meanwhile, Geraldene (‘g-g-g-Geraldene’) transfers the acoustic chug to a clear electric sound with some cowbell.
We also have the radio single If I Was A Cowboy (‘I’d be the queen’), the sort of track Kacey Musgraves used to make in 2014 and which suits both Miranda’s voice and the record label’s demand for a fluffy commercial country track. Points for the use of ‘huckleberry’ in the second verse.
Actin’ Up is a sensational way to open the album: a really brilliant vocal, lyrical dexterity (‘hotter than wasabi’), a stuttering hook (‘M-m-m-m-I’m actin’ up), a marvellous groove, a reverb-filled guitar line, namechecks for Tiger Woods and Billy Bob’s Texas. It’s got it all, and it’s followed by Scenes, a typical Dick/Hemby/Lambert composition with plenty of pictures painted by the lyrics.
Miranda is the heir to what the Dixie Chicks were doing in the late 90/early 00s and her brand of country-rock has travelled the world. Miranda’s travellin’ aspect is present on the mellow Tourist: I love the organic instrumentation which provides a gorgeous bed to the lyric about Miranda having ‘a stranger in my soul who loves a good goodbye and big hello…nowhere feels like home’. It’s the Pursuit of Happiness that makes her restless, according to the bouncy track of that title.
Mick Jagger put out the song Wandering Spirit in 1993 and Miranda includes it on this collection as it resonates with the theme. Get those hands a-clappin’! The B-52’s are soon to retire, so Miranda has got the trio while she could get them on Music City Queen, about a real vessel which was the ‘belle of Biloxi’. Fred Schneider adds some ad libs to a second verse which notes that the entertainers on the ship imitates both Dolly Parton and Jerry Lee Lewis, and there’s both a rock’n’roll piano section and a slide guitar bit. It’s a magical song full of character and musicality.
So is Strange, a gritty state-of-the-nation song which was rolled out in Miranda’s C2C set and fits in perfectly with tunes from recent albums. The chugging nature of this song reminds me of Sheryl Crow, who will emerge as a key influence on popular music this millennium. I’ll Be Lovin’ You has a similar feel, with double-tracked vocals and harmonies fluttering around a lyric where Miranda pledges to remember her beloved wherever she roams. The album’s big ballad is That’s What Makes the Jukebox Play, where the narrator scans the bar and describes the characters who need the bar to be filled with songs to ‘lean on’.
A lot of these songs create an itch that needs scratching, be it a production choice, lyric or melody. When Bob Harris played Country Money for the first time anywhere in the world, I played it again instantly, hooked as I was by the rhyme scheme, guitar lick, the line ‘bad mother clucker’ and the album’s best chorus. It is the best representation of a sound Miranda has honed over 20 years. Props to Aaron Ratiere who was in the room for this fine tune and has an album of his own out now.
Carousel is a soft song about the circus that is almost a sequel to Miranda’s manic song Two Rings Shy. ‘Every show must end’ sighs the narrator, who ‘only misses Harlem when she sings the carousel’. Even if the song sounds a lot like A Million Dreams from The Greatest Showman, it finishes the album on a mellow note.
It is an album without flaws.