Miranda Lambert started taking the country music charts by storm soon after she won third place on Nashville Star, a country version of American Idol, back in 2003. Her early hits “Kerosene” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” projected a don’t-mess-with-me persona that she has continued to highlight in all of her albums since.
Lambert is back with her fifth album, Platinum, which, like her previous one, shot right to the top of the country charts. In the title song, “platinum” refers to both the color of her albums and her hair. “What doesn’t kill you makes you blonder” gives you a good idea of how she can turn a phrase. Lambert’s rock-flavored country feels right at home on country radio, but her sound is broader than that. She also plays with country-swing on “All That’s Left” and traditional country on “Old Sh!t,” a song extoling the virtues of vintage things. She is willing to experiment within these frameworks so that, while her songs pay tribute to traditional styles, she continues to sound new. Her Texas accent gives her an aura of authenticity too. When she sings “I’m at it again with mama,” you believe her.
The other thing that sets her apart is the downbeat perspective in nearly every song on Platinum. After my first listen, I thought the album could have been titled “…and here’s another thing that sucks.” Lambert, in both the songs she writes and those she chooses to cover, often seems to be saying, “Life is hard and we’re all just trying to get through.” She does a fine job of articulating what many people experience: unfaithfulness in relationships, being mistreated, having a hard time with money and other hardships. There is a longing for a better day and a looking back to a time when things were better, as on “Automatic.” She delivers these stories in a way that isn’t heavy-handed but, rather, allows us to feel the pain and the sense of despair of the person whose story she is telling.
The Gospel is usually presented with an eye toward heaven, leaving those on Earth pretty desperate.
These songs remind me of the Psalms of lament. The psalmist did not hesitate to name the things in his life that were crummy. He laid them out before God in clear language, much like Lambert does. In “Hard Staying Sober” she sings, “Why you think the world drinks? / Why you think the world smokes? / Why you think we all sit around and tell a bunch of dirty jokes?” The Psalms, though, almost always contain a turn - a place where the psalmist moves from lament to assurance that God is still with him. Lambert’s songs don’t go there. If there is a turn it is to an appreciation for alcohol. Hard living and hard drinking are things that Lambert seems to both worry about and celebrate.
For a musical genre that has such a close connection to Christian tradition, much of country music has a big separation between what goes on in church and what happens during the rest of the week. Jesus is name-checked often, but the Gospel is usually presented with an eye toward heaven, leaving those on Earth pretty desperate. Lambert’s Platinum reminds us that it’s one thing to have access to the Christian story and quite another to be transformed by it.