"We don't expect long answers when we ask children what they want to be when they grow up," writes the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson in her landmark book about women improvising their realities, Composing a Life. Despite the infinite ways fate can turn, we look at the wide-eyed little ones in our midst and think: She will be a doctor. He will have two children. She will fall in love and stay in love with the right person, not like I did. We ask them to echo back our hopes as a way of quieting our fears.
Adults harbor similar tenacious expectations for themselves. It takes steel to accept uncertainty, even though it's all we really have. "I don't have the nerve to use my heart," Miranda Lambert sings exactly halfway through The Weight of These Wings; this double album, a set of songs perfectly pitched for uncertain times, is her way of embracing the long answer as an artistic strategy and a personal mission. Divided into two segments that trace a woman's steps away from the security of a coupled, anchored life and eventual return to both herself and the risk of intimacy, TWOTW (out Nov. 18) is the most musically and conceptually cohesive release yet from country music's most respected younger female star. It bears a strong connection to other works by contemporary country women demanding equal time and space with men, like Rosanne Cash, the Dixie Chicks and the Joni Mitchell of Hejira. But as much as this is a woman's album, deeply informed by Lambert's awareness of the limits and demands placed upon women who stray from easy ways, it's also her answer to the classic work of the Texas songwriters who formed her, especially Willie Nelson, whose Red Headed Stranger informs TWOTW's sound and scope.
Many are viewing this expansive collection of songs as a career-defining effort by Lambert, and it is — a mapping out of a third way between commercial country and more high-minded Americana music that is, in fact, already being taken by new dominant forces like Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves and popular "outsiders" like Jason Isbell and Margo Price. Working in equal measure with the most pop-savvy East Nashville-associated "cool kids" and the cream of Music Row sophisticates, Lambert crafts a sound that is deeply adaptable: catchy and introspective, tradition-bound and cleanly contemporary. She's not turning away from the crowd that already loves her; she's giving them the credit to see the darkness in her jokes and the hope that lightens the tone of her tearjerkers. Everything on TWOTW is about gradations: the ways a mid-tempo ballad can slide toward rock uplift or stay in a blue zone; the way a line that sounds like it shuts a door (say, "The thought of loving you just makes me sick"), delivered with tenderness, actually signals a new kind of opening. Musically and in the lyrics she co-wrote throughout, Lambert is exploring the subtleties of the process of composing her own life. It's a star move only in the way it's an insistently personal and empathetic one.
Lambert is the kind of mainstream pop heroine who's worked to earn the right to think like an artist, and this release, on her own Sony Records imprint Vanner, reasserts her singular status within country as a favored child who refuses to conform. She's pure country, but only if that designation allows her to be a singer-songwriter, a bluegrass enthusiast and a digger in the crates of Southern rock, pop and soul. Handpicked, top-tier writers and co-writers, ranging from royals like Natalie Hemby and Liz Rose to hot new talents like Aaron Raitiere and Lambert's protégé Gwen Sebastian, help her adhere to a consistent tone and thematic focus throughout these 24 tracks, but range is the point, and she relishes it. Working with East Nashville favorite Eric Masse as well as her longtime producers Glenn Worf and Frank Lidell, Lambert establishes a baseline of atmospheric, cleanly contemporary country rock, but also experiments with Patsy Cline-style torch singing ("To Learn Her," co-written by her Pistol Annies pal Ashley Monroe), big-shouldered power balladry ("Keeper of the Flame") and a take on Southern gospel that's deeply indebted to Lucinda Williams ("Dear Old Sun"). Novelty romps like the sure-to-be-a-single "Pink Sunglasses" and the breezy "For the Birds" leaven the project's tone; but mostly, the eclecticism of this album serves Lambert's desire to address a serious subject: what a woman who forges her own path must sacrifice, and has to gain.
"There's trouble where I'm going but I'm gonna go there anyway," Lambert sings in the moody "Runnin' Just in Case," which begins the album and sets its unfolding agenda. On paper, the line reads like bravado. But Lambert mutters the phrase introspectively, resignedly, over a rumbling bassline and an almost drone-like bed of electric guitars. She's abiding with the pain of her life and the risk of the world, not chasing it. What might have been a burn-it-down freedom cry on a previous Lambert album is much more equivocal here, acknowledging loneliness as well as the need to break away. "Happiness ain't prison, but there's freedom in a broken heart," she concludes.
TWOTW allows Lambert to reclaim her public identity after her divorce from fellow country singer-turned-television-fixture Blake Shelton, and to step beyond the take-no-guff trouble-girl image that both propelled her to fame and eventually became a limitation. Lambert was never comfortable with being arm candy to a reality show star, nor half of a pre-ordained royal pair; that kind of fame made it nearly impossible for her to stand at the center of her own story, a problem many women have experienced when publicly bound to the role of wife, mother, support system or foil. Throughout TWOTW, Lambert sings about old lovers or sets her sights on new ones (indeed, her current beau Anderson East is a co-writer on two of the album most tender ballads), but she always returns to herself, examining her own motives, identifying as "the one who doesn't need another one," as she drawls coolly in the 2 a.m. look in the mirror "Ugly Lights." She means a drink, but she means a man, too.
She also means another "Kerosene." There's no signature Lambert anthem about burning down the past and the fool who wrecked it on TWOTW. That kind of broad gesture doesn't suit her now. Multi-dimensionality has always been a distinguishing quality for Lambert — her best songs have represented a voice that's not just gutsy but unguarded, wry, solitary, plain sad. On TWOTW she explores how meaning can shift across the verses and choruses of changing circumstance. Movement is the album's almost overplayed ruling metaphor, with songs about covered wagons, wheels and vagabonding popping up as regularly as freeway exits.
This is a neat identity flip, a way for Lambert to say no to the more common feminine clichés of the heartland mama or the honky-tonk angel in favor of a role that's more gender neutral, even androgynous. ("Tomboy," a sweet ode to a messy-haired rover that sounds a bit like a Bonnie Raitt song, it a highlight of the set's second half.) Yet TWOTW isn't simply a paean to the drifter, that quintessential country-western anti-hero. On a soul level, Lambert rejects that romantic ideal, which never made much room for women, and in fact cast women in the unrewarding role of the one left behind. Instead, she reconsiders drifting as a fundamental human reality, generating its own kind of meaning, and experienced by everyone at some point. Drifting is transition; it is the slow act of adapting to loss and opening to something new. "We are migrants in time," writes Mary Catherine Bateson. "Of any stopping place in life, it is good to ask whether it will be a good place from which to go on as well as a good place to remain." Life, Lambert's telling us, is the act of assembling that long answer, one that unfolds like a road. She knows the weight of her wings and the equal pull exerted by the urge to fly. In the end, Lambert embraces the tension. "Damn these wheels," she sings at the album's end, sounding happy anyway. "I'm moving on."