ountry music has always been synonymous with honesty and truth. It’s the genre’s biggest draw and sometimes its biggest drawback. The music has forever been a place where you can go to get intimate, believable stories about the most essential functions and facts of human existence—love, work, family, death. With arguably more grace and consistency than any other song form, country speaks deeply and plainly to the concerns that occupy our minds and the feelings that seize our hearts.
That said, this is not a genre of guises. With so much of the fundamental stuff of life spelled out so directly, there’s very little psychological wiggle room lest you be accused of not being genuine. To a certain degree, many listeners are convinced that their favorite stars are in real life exactly the same people their songs purport them to be. If Toby Keith is a testosterone-fueled hellraiser in his music, that’s because he really is a meat-and-potatoes party boy. Kenny Chesney truly is a fratty beach bum, and Sara Evans truly is a sexy Bible thumper. You can imagine these characterizations are fairly often correct.
However, what’s more important is that even if these characters are just that—invented artistic creations—they are still expected to carry the stamp of realism and reliability. As a result, almost everyone is a prisoner to his or her persona. Sure, liberal dopesmoker Willie Nelson can seem to step across the aisle and champion strong-armed justice on "Beer for My Horses," but rarely can any artist flout meaning altogether, making the performance itself and the movability of its gestures the star of the show.
Well, consider it done. Miranda Lambert’s sophomore album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, showcases an artist who has internalized context and elevated herself above it, crafting a persona whose power relies not on values, beliefs, or experiences, but on feints, distance, and masterful command.
And just what exactly is the benefit of possessing those latter traits? For starters, it makes things much more unpredictable, especially in a place like Nashville where identity is so often intractable. Elevating a performer above the raw materials of performance allows us to contemplate psychology and suggestion without easy narrative referents. Art becomes a game, and a very fun one at that, when sincerity goes out the window and the liberation inherent in acting takes over, where everything can hinge on an inflection or a tossed-off aside.
Simply and inelegantly put, in most of these songs Lambert is communicating not a specific emotion or believable space so much as her own untouchable awesomeness. The opening "Gunpowder and Lead" finds a young woman administering some hollow-point justice on an abusive boyfriend, but rather than taking the tone of a sympathetic victim who simply came to realize that Something Had To Be Done, Lambert instead sounds positively exuberant and seems to thrill in the promise of squeezing off a few shots, like John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction almost wishing someone would mess with his car so he could catch them and fuck them up. The same is true with the title track, which stresses the "Crazy" over the "Ex-Girlfriend." This isn’t Carrie Underwood’s Everygal getting played and then striking back with some creative vandalism in "Before He Cheats." In fact, the implication seems to be that the protagonist here had a normal, non-adulterous breakup with her beau and just wants to beat another girl’s ass for having the gall to date a newly single guy. Every dirty deed in Nashville usually needs a reasonably logical explanation, but it sounds like Lambert’s just in love with the idea of snarling "little bitch" over hard-thwacking drums.
Of course, it’s not all cold-blooded resolve, but what separates Lambert is that she’s always fully in control even in the moments when she (ostensibly) lets her guard down. On the blistering, harmonica-driven "Down," she’s become cynical from her own heartbreak and takes it out on a poor young man who "didn’t know the game," but takes no joy in admitting "I sleep but I don’t rest." However, the succeeding song, "Guilty in Here," takes culpability and turns it right back on its head, reading on paper like a regretful dismissal of promiscuity ("I don’t think I have any more room underneath my thumb") but sounding for all the world like she’s even more giddy about empty sex than Nelly Furtado.
Even in the ballads, those inveterate sources of intimacy and confession, Lambert frequently manufactures distance through formality and restraint. Nothing really screams out "soul-baring" here, and that’s all to the reinforcement of her above-it-all-ness. "More Like Her" deflects much of the attention onto another woman, while "Desperation" claims that powerful titular emotion but doesn’t enact it. And "Love Letters" is so traditional and hymn-like it could’ve been taken from an Emmylou Harris album (which is exactly where "Easy From Now On" originated).
It may sound like hyperbole, but I think Miranda Lambert is at a very rarified place right now, turning her songs into vehicles for a persona that transcends background narrative and personal history (apparently she’s a Republican for fuck’s sake!). This is Jagger, Bowie, Debbie Harry, and early MJ territory. The only contemporary performers I can think of who can boast a similar level of self-possession are Jay-Z and Beyonce. The only problem right now is that Lambert seems too nice outside of her songs. If she really wants this badassedness to be more than a one-album gimmick, she definitely needs to start being more of a dick in real life.