Album Review – Miranda Lambert’s “Wildcard”

This new Miranda Lambert album is terrible, until it’s excellent. It might simultaneously be Miranda’s worst and best album ever. It includes some catastrophically bad moments to the point where you feel downright embarrassed for listening, along with some of the best tracks she’s ever recorded. Wildcard is just that—a spin of the wheel and a roll of the dice, because you just don’t know what you’re gonna get dealt when you cue up the next track. But there’s too much good stuff here to cast it off as just another mainstream country pop record. You have to be willing to dig a little to get to the gold. But it’s ultimately worth the patience and effort.

It was Miranda Lambert’s last record, the double-sided and gatefolded The Weight Of These Wings that was supposed to present a dichotomy and counter-balance to itself. But comparatively, that effort feels incredibly even-keeled and consistent considering the manic moments that made it onto this album. The Weight Of These Wings was Miranda Lambert’s singer/songwriter statement, and seemed to hint that it might be the next phase of her career. But let’s face it, that Americana stuff doesn’t sell, and Miranda has a franchise to support.

So since Miranda Lambert was at a crossroads in her career, teetering on the brink of radio relevance, it was time to seed the track list and live shows with some serious arena rock and outright pop stuff by bringing in one of the masters of such enterprises in mainstream country—the notorious Jay Joyce—while simultaneously trying to keep the critics and purists at bay, along with satisfying the constituents that champion Miranda as a beacon of substance in commercial country. It’s a wild ride and messy at times, but Miranda accomplishes it all on Wildcard.

Deal with this record like you would cutting the bruised parts from a fine piece of fruit. You can start by losing the first two songs on the record entirely, “White Trash” and “Mess With My Head.” They are the sum of all the fears we had when it was first revealed that Jay Joyce had jumped on board as producer of this project, and Wildcard wastes no time getting to them, which will unfortunately keep many true country fans from listening further. But cauterize these songs at the vein, erase them from your memory banks, and move on. Another way to approach this record is starting with track 9, “How Dare You Love,” and listen from there. Do this, and you have a superb little EP, or a much better starting point for the entire album.

Wildcard really does feel like two separate records. One is a ridiculously overproduced monstrosity with Jay Joyce doing his worst, adding tacky layers of useless and burdening embellishments to otherwise passable tracks, including the “do do do’s” of “It All Comes Out in the Wash,” and the “la da da’s” of “Way Too Pretty For Prison” just like he did to Eric Church’s “Desperate Man.” And then you get stuff that’s purely country in scope, and songs that Miranda and her co-writers should be infinitely proud of.

But the complaints are not just about country vs. pop and rock. “Tequila Does” co-written with Jack Ingram is one of the most country-sounding songs Miranda Lambert has ever cut. But it’s just okay, and kind of feels more like a Midland B-side. “Track Record” owes much of its sonic influence to 80’s synth pop, but is set off really great against writing that is very revelatory for Miranda, enveloping you in the emotions and honesty of the song. “Locomotive” is an outright and unabashed hard rock song, but it’s actually straightforward and normal-sounding enough that it’s forgivable compared to some of the other tracks. Taking a good song like “Bluebird,” and weighing it down with so many “oh oh oh’s” like too much eye makeup that hides the beauty as opposed to accentuating it, that is the real offense in some of the songs on Wildcard.

Ultimately, Jay Joyce failed this project with the sequencing of these tracks and getting in the way, even when weighing the positive moments, which come in ample doses if you can navigate the gauntlet of some of the early songs. “How Dare You Love” is everything you want and more from a Miranda Lambert song, and how refreshing it is that it’s just a simple arrangement, and a strong vocal performance. You don’t have to do anything else but listen to the contrast on this record to reinforce the theory that when it comes to country, less is often more. That’s what’s so cool about country music. You don’t need studio hijinks and layers upon layers of production to connect with an audience. And as we’re seeing with artists like Luke Combs right now, country is hot at the moment, as are strong songs, while wanking rock guitar is out.

“Dark Bars” may be one of the best, if not the best song Miranda Lambert has ever recorded. Co-written with Liz Rose, it captures everything that is compelling about country songs in one composition. But of course, it’s the final track on the record. Good to end strong, but perhaps better to compel people to keep listening by putting some of the stronger tracks out front and bury your potential radio singles since single streamers won’t be listening to a cohesive record anyway.

And yes, Wildcard comes with a strong dose of womanhood. And good on it for that. So much of country music solely appeals to men, especially in the mainstream. Props to Miranda Lambert for wanting to offer some different perspectives and counterbalance in the male-dominated mainstream country marketplace. And note, this is different from the perspective American Songwriter took in their review of the record, where they called Wildcard a “…51 minute gift to her fervent, largely female audience,” before succumbing to massive public pressure and removing the opinion. This was a completely wrong assessment. Not only does Miranda Lambert have many male fans, songs like “Tequila Does” or “Dark Bars,” or even something like “Locomotive” can be direct bridges to men who otherwise might struggle to identify with mainstream country women.

And men can even find strong feminine songs sassy and sexy. If you can’t laugh at Miranda appreciating all the free press she receives at the checkout stand like she says in “Pretty Bitchin’,” then you need to lighten up. Miranda Lambert bares her soul in this record in spots. But she also is unafraid of having a little fun. Sometimes this fun comes across as prattling for mainstream attention, primary due to the overly pop production, or more like a caricature of her early persona as opposed to an homage to it like this record is supposed to be. But in a song like “Pretty Bitchin'” Miranda does what some of the brooding males in country—mainstream or otherwise—seem incapable of doing, which is being appreciative for the opportunities she’s been afforded as opposed to seeing stardom as this incredible burden. Nobody’s name has been used as clickbait more than Miranda Lambert’s in the last couple of years, but she makes sure to get the last laugh on Wildcard.

But it is also worthy to point out that this album speaks from a strong feminine perspective, and because of this, women might find more appeal in it as a whole compared to men. That simple, self-evident statement might be taken as naked sexism by some, and trigger some of the blue-checkmarked Twitter gang and Stan trolls who believe they should be the ultimate authority on opinion to swarm. But it’s true nonetheless, and an important point to underscore because we need more material in mainstream country that appeals to women and represents their perspective. When you have a song like “Way Too Pretty For Prison” about plotting to kill your ex-boyfriends, but fearing to go through with it because they don’t offer eyelash extensions to the incarcerated, that’s just something that women are going to find saucy while their boyfriends and husbands roll their eyes. And this fact is irreconcilable, however politically incorrect it may be in this hyper moment in history.

There is a pernicious idea out there that due to the struggles women face in country music, it’s imperative that the media lie about them and embellish their press clippings to help “support” these women’s careers, while any criticism they may receive is branded as “sexist.” It’s also a way to keep Stan armies at bay, which are especially fervent behind artists like Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and Maren Morris. Believe it or not, that’s what American Songwriter was attempting to do when speaking about Miranda’s “largely female audience.” They just completely fumbled the point and were uninformed.

But like we always see, especially when it comes to mainstream country women, their coverage is outsourced to writers who cover multiple genres of music, and frankly, don’t have the knowledge base to be making strong assertions or attempting to offer perspective to the public. Rolling Stone called Wildcard a “masterpiece,” but simply the inclusion of the idiotic noise vamp at the beginning of “Way Too Pretty For Prison” disqualifies it as such. After all, “Way Too Pretty For Prison” is just a rewrite of Brandy Clark’s “Stripes”—with all sincere love to the Love Junkies (Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, Liz Rose) who wrote the track with Miranda, and otherwise offer great contributions to Wildcard.

It is important for the media, and even fans to be honest about their feelings upon music, and to also not set unattainable expectations for songs, artists, and records by showering them with exaggerated accolades. Some fans and reviewers will love Wildcard, and specifically for some of its wild, and at times, poppy production. And that’s a fair perspective, and taste is something that can’t be argued.

But Saving Country Music takes the stance that country should sound like country, and quality songwriting should trump all other concerns. That is why Wildcard ends up being regarded here more positively than negatively. Nonetheless, it is important to point out the album’s shortcomings, not only to offer constructive criticism to the creative process in hopes for more positive outcomes in the future (which is the real way to “support” women or any artist), but to also warn those traditional country fans, independent country fans, and Americana fans that you may be turned off by the first few tracks from this record, but it’s worth persevering and finding the better material. Because in the case of Wildcard, that perseverance is handsomely rewarded.

6.5/10

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Purchase Miranda Lambert’s Wildcard