It's been a pretty terrible past few years for country music. The rise of "bro country," music made for and by red-blooded, America-loving, beer-drinking white guys like Luke Bryan and Eric Church, has turned the country music airwaves largely into a cesspool. There is one glaring exception, though: reigning queen of country music and four-time Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year, Miranda Lambert.
Lambert, a North Texas native, has been a refreshing voice in country music since the release of her first album, Kerosene, in 2005. On Tuesday, the Pink Pistol released her fifth album, Platinum, a slicked-up record full of excellent vocals, so-so songwriting, and evidence that even she hasn't been spared from the influence of bro-tastic country music and all its hallmarks.
Bro country has a specific set of characteristics that differentiate it from the braggadocio and beer drinking of country music past. There's a lot of speak-singing and markedly more Southern stereotypes, like an increased focus on farm equipment and back roads. There is also plenty of country boy hip-hop influence, like Blake Shelton's pseudo-rapping on "Boys 'Round Here" and Jason Aldean's on "Dirt Road Anthem." It almost seems as if it's written into these artists contracts that there must some kind of rapping or "urban" influence on a country record for it to be released.
"Little Red Wagon," arguably the worst track on Platinum, is where this assumed requirement rears its ugly, appropriative head. "You can't step to this backyard swagga," speak-sings Lambert over a frantic and messy Southern rock track. Compared to the rest of the songs on this album, "Little Red Wagon" feels more compulsory than cohesive.
Platinum also plays to other bro-country stereotypes that speak to people living a simple country life, like drinking beer out in the country, flirting with boys' and "watching sun tea in the window." It's clear from previous records that this life is authentic for Lambert, but for the first time in her recording career, it feels exaggerated and strained. Like she just stuffed as many Southern stereotypes as she could into this 16 track album, much like her bro-country contemporaries.
Platinum lacks the lyrical substance of Lambert's previous releases, but has plenty of shine to obscure that fact. As Jody Rosen wrote at Vulture, "Bro-country doesn't bother with politics; it's less thoughtful and conscientious than Paisley but more modern, dragging pop's most hidebound genre into the Obama era without batting an eye." Lambert seems to be doing the same here with Platinum, simplifying her message of southern girl empowerment for the masses.
The title track is an anthem to the power of blonde in a bottle. And yet a line like, "What doesn't kill you only makes you blonder" is the female country vocalist's equivalent of Luke Bryan's "big black jacked-up truck." There also seems to be a lot of country girl "rapping" on this track on top of a heavily hip-hop influenced beat. Substitute a few of the feminine stereotypes like "small town girl" and "Marilyns with curls and curves" for country boy tropes and this song could be as easily performed by Luke Bryan or any of Lambert's other bro-country contemporaries. It sounds no different.
That isn't to say that there isn't plenty of Lambert's sassy small-town-country girl power on this record. As a solo artist and with her side project, Pistol Annies, Lambert tackled some pretty heavy topics, including drug addiction and domestic violence. "Gunpowder and Lead" and "Kerosene" are assertive songs about a tough-as-nails country broad, while "Platinum" presents a simplified, less-ballsy woman that is probably much more palatable for country music fans. And we all know that's not who Miranda Lambert really is.
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Some may chalk that up to Lambert growing up. She's happily married and settled down, so her angst likely has ratcheted down a little. But she can still be snarky and biting when she wants, as seen on "Priscilla," an ode to Priscilla Presley and living with an attention-seeking, famous husband. The same goes for "Babies Having Babies," a pointed track about teen pregnancy. It's clear that Miranda Lambert is still fierce, but much of that trademark spunk is lost in her record label's attempt to shoot for the middle.
When Lambert is true to herself, she is at her best. There is probably no one in music who writes more authentically about relationships than Miranda Lambert, whether they're about breaking up, being madly in love or dealing with your crazy-ass mama. "All That's Left" is an excellent break-up song with a heavy dose of western swing influence. Her storytelling skills are on display in "Bathroom Sink" and "Holding on to You."
Still, Lambert's vocals are as strong as ever on Platinum, which makes her insistence on speak-singing infuriating. It's easy to understand why singers with a limited vocal range (looking at you, Jason Aldean) would choose to avoid big notes, but Lambert should be singing the hell out of them instead of relying on her characteristic Southern drawl to tell the story like the dudes in her genre.
Make no mistake, Miranda Lambert is still the most talented country artist that's come out of Nashville in a long while. There are multiple tracks from Platinum that are excellent on their own, but the record as a whole falls prey to boring, bro-country mediocrity that record labels have been shoving down our throats for the past 10 years. After listening to Platinum a few times, I found myself listening to Four The Record or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for something that was a little less Nashville, a little more Miranda Lambert.