The glimmers of promise flashed by Miranda Lambert on her debut album, Kerosene, have been delivered on and then some on her confident and fully formed sophomore set, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Over the course of eleven solid tracks, Lambert establishes herself as a potential voice for her generation of women, should they choose to embrace her as their standard. And while she’s an above average vocalist, her true talent is songwriting, as evidenced by the uniformly strong songs she has penned for this album.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend opens with a bang – quite literally. “Gunpowder & Lead” is the latest in a long string of country music songs that deal with domestic abuse, but Lambert has the courage to sing it in the first person. In abuse songs as varied as “Independence Day” and “Goodbye Earl”, there are always two villains: the man doing the abusing, and the society that is failing to protect the woman, forcing her to take her safety into her own hands. After her violent lover “slapped her face and shook her like a rag doll”, she has him arrested, but she knows he’ll be coming back for round two. So she’s waiting for him, shotgun in hand: “His fist is big, but my gun’s bigger. He’ll find out when I pull the trigger.”
It’s such a ferocious start to the album that when it segues to the Gillian Welch prohibition romp “Dry Town”, the festive twang sounds almost out of place. Give Lambert twenty seconds though, and she has you as captivated in the storyline of a woman looking for a beer as you were in the violent vengeance of the preceding track.
The next seven songs are all written or co-written by Lambert, starting with current single “Famous in a Small Town”, which I think would’ve made a better album opener and title cut, since the song’s hook – “Every last one route one rural heart’s got a story to tell” – is validated by the other ten tracks on the album. Lambert never wavers from singing in the first person, but she’s essentially a character actress throughout the album, acting as the voice for many different types of young women, some far more well-adjusted than others.
The lady in the actual title track, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”, snarls at the “little bitch” that has taken her place, while the heartbroken woman in the gorgeous “Love Letters” wails “my heart’s flashing ‘No Vacancy.’” All of the women are incisively self-aware, even of their own bad choices. The killer ballad “More Like Her” has Lambert envying the woman who has taken her place: “You love her as she loves you with all she has. I guess I should have been more like that.”
My personal favorite track is “Guilty In Here”, which is a snapshot of how much gender roles have changed with my generation if I’ve ever heard one. Lambert has been trying to have it all without commitment, but is left wondering: “What became of all the boys who only want one thing? Someone tell me what I’m doing wrong.” Her dilemma is “they’re all down on their knees. Is it guilty in here, or is it just me?” I don’t think I’ve heard a sharper line this year than “that boy’s like a sore in your mouth that you just have to bite.”
Lambert’s album closes with two more covers: “Getting Ready”, a Patty Griffin song from Children Running Through, Griffin’s release from earlier this year; and “Easy From Now On”, the Carlene Carter standard that was immortalized by Emmylou Harris, and has since been covered by Terri Clark and Carter herself. Lambert’s such a distinctive writer that it’s immediately obvious that she’s singing somebody else’s words. She performs both songs well, but the two cuts distract from the album’s central strength, which is a young woman singing from a perspective unique to her own generation. She simply sounds less authentic when borrowing the world view of women from an older generation.
Lambert has yet to be fully embraced by radio, but it isn’t hurting her at retail. And that’s a good thing: her ability to sell platinum the first time out without that support clearly liberated her to follow her own muse the second time around. The result is an album that’s actually an album, the kind of cohesive work that today’s young, mainstream country artists rarely make. Fans of killer songwriting need to pay attention to this album. We may be witnessing the early work of a songwriting powerhouse in the making.