Miranda Lambert’s ‘Palomino’ Is an Ode to the Wandering Spirit
With more Academy of Country Music awards to her name than any artist in history, Miranda Lambert steadily continues to rack up superlatives, most recently with the 2022 distinction of Entertainer of the Year. Since her last solo effort, 2019’s “Wildcard,” Lambert released the all-acoustic album “The Marfa Tapes,” with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, and has already followed up with a new solo release, “Palomino.” Her latest work was written again with Jon Randall, as well as Luke Dick, along with major contributions from Natalie Hemby. Three songs from “The Marfa Tapes” appear reimagined in full band renditions, alongside twelve new tracks that pick up neatly where “Wildcard” left off, full of the fiery spirit that characterized that album. This time around, Lambert returns even more animated. When the Covid-19 pandemic left her unable to tour, she sought to relive the excitement of life on the road by writing songs about it, in which she traverses the country, from the Mojave Desert to the Rocky Mountains, a world inhabited by colorful characters with country lifestyles. The result is a set of tracks that celebrate the wandering spirit.
Opener “Actin’ Up” sets the album’s sprightly tone, kicking off with muted guitars that bend on cue as Lambert teases with flirty lyrics. Snippets like “Call me hotter than Wasabi / ‘Cause… I’m-I’m-I’m Actin’ Up” encapsulate the bold, feisty attitude of the album. At one point, Lambert calls herself a “little Lone Star Elvis,” bringing to mind how much the song follows in that tradition. The spirit of Elvis’ 1956 breakthrough single “Heartbreak Hotel” exudes in everything from the reverberating tremolo guitars and classic rhythm and blues structure, and the provocateur posturing. Indeed, as it turns out, “Palomino” is very much a rock ‘n’ roll album, in the strain of rock ‘n’ roll originally presented by Elvis — a fusion of the original R&B and country — with the country elements, of course, amplified and at the forefront. Backing Lambert are drummer Fred Eltringham (The Black Crowes), bass/keyboardist Ian Fitchuk (Sam Hunt, Joy Oladokun, Birdy) and guitarist Rob McNelley (Joe Bonamassa, Beth Hart, Buddy Guy), making for a bold, electric onslaught.
Pandemic-born restlessness lies at the root of the “wandering spirit” that Lambert celebrates throughout the album. She lays out her case directly on “Strange,” declaring, “Times like these make me feel strange,” with voice and guitar impressively in sync, as if in a battle to out-twang one another. The straightforward, climactic line comes double-tracked, and prompts a feelgood chorus of “Have a smoke, buy a round / Get on a jetliner goin’ anywhere… Do anything to keep you sane.” The itch to return to life on the road plays out in songs like “Scenes,” in which Lambert describes the colorful characters and scenery one encounters on tour, punctuating her lines with countrified, elongated vowels, and resolving her melody on each fourth line with clockwork, bluesy aplomb as she proceeds, “moving right along to the next scene.” The jangly guitar, pedal steel and organ scamper along with an ease that perfectly suits the sentiment, as Lambert confesses, “I’m just a tourist… I wanna see it all, so I keep moving.”
A highlight comes in “Wandering Spirit,” a cover of a 1993 Mick Jagger tune. The source material shouldn’t be all that surprising for those well-versed in Jagger’s oeuvre. If you ever heard the surfeit of twang in Jagger’s delivery on the Rolling Stones’ cover of Alvin Johnson’s “Down Home Girl” on 1965’s “The Rolling Stones Now,” it would all make sense. “Wandering Spirit” is essentially a rockabilly number, and Lambert preserves the feel of the original while giving it a fresh reworking. Her voicings are less hiccup-ey, more sustained than Jagger’s, and she lengthens the “Ohs” of the bridge into melismatic utterances that add dimensions to the track. The song chugs along to a handclap-heavy stomp, with some wild, standout guitar work that outdoes that of the original, and erupts into a chorus with unhinged gospel backing vocals. It’s a spirited rocker in the tradition of Lambert’s “Little Red Wagon.”
Several of the new songs focus not only on traveling, but specifically on traveling to play country music. A major standout is “Music City Queen,” an unanticipated collaboration with the B-52’s. It’s a funky, rollicking number, with walloping bass, stride piano, and an overall twangy reinvention of the B-52’s trademark liveliness. Lambert alludes to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” and lets out two breaths to model that song’s chorus, then mentions Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” upon which the B-52’s interpolate a segment of Lewis’ rockabilly piano stylings. A playful call and response with B-52’s singer Fred Schneider, and a chorus of “Rollin’ on the river” make for an especially animated, fun-loving number. “Country Money” is another upbeat track, featuring a meaty sludge of crunchy riffage and dueling guitar solo bits. Lambert punctuates her delivery with hoots and yelps as she portrays humorously vivid scenes of women making “country money.” We hear of the Carter Sisters and Connie Johnson, of corn liquor and Cadillacs topped with chicken wire. Balancing out the affair are slower, sentimental tracks like “That’s What Makes the Jukebox Play,” which trudges along as Lambert sings in a dreary, winding drawl about a song that “plays over and over and over again,” dragging her last iteration of “over,” to the slow release of pedal steel bends.
The wandering spirit that pervades the album extends to “If I Was a Cowboy,” another of the mellower numbers. An infectious tune, full of curling, gushing harmonies and melodies that faintly recall Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” it features the illustrious Al Perkins on steel, and paints an imposing portrait of Lambert as she envisions herself – “Big iron hips with the holsters / I’d be looking mighty fine on a poster / Wanted by the law but the laws don’t apply to me.” A more instantly memorable tune yet comes in “Waxahachie,” a reimagined cut from “The Marfa Tapes,” in which Lambert personifies the titular Texas town, as she travels to a lover with a swiftness of conviction, as if she still “was a cowboy,” declaring, “I can run from the demons like the devil in a speedin’ car / I’ve got enough gasoline, memories and nicotine.” “I’ll Be Lovin’ You,” perhaps the catchiest track of the whole set, finds Lambert offering the eponymous promise “at the end of every road” to a ditty that sounds classic upon first listen.
Among the love songs here is another “Marfa Tapes” rework, “In His Arms,” on which Lambert takes on a wincing, yearning tone over an elegantly dragging, lap steel-drenched arrangement. When it comes to female rivalry, Lambert brashly shoos away her competition on the third rework, “Geraldine.” A spirited romp full of whirring, bluesy guitars, the track is a play on Dolly Parton’s 1973 classic, “Jolene,” with a decidedly different confidence and attitude. Parton sang,” Your smile is like a breath of spring / Your voice is soft like summer rain / And I cannot compete with you, Jolene.” Lambert, on the other hand, insists, “You’re trailer park pretty, but you’re never gonna be Jolene,” and assures, “You got ’em all on their knees / But you can’t take a man from me.”
“Palomino” is an album full of solid country songwriting, with scarcely any filler. The tracklist leans toward spirited rockers, full of energy and attitude that plays out in unyielding guitar and vocal twang. Lambert covers all the expected bases, with some jilting, reflective numbers and a fair share of love songs, all memorable tunes. But she stuns with the bold surprises of the album — the unprecedented B-52’s collaboration, a Mick Jagger cover that hits harder than the original, and a fiery rebuttal to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” The urgency with which Lambert yearned to relive the excitement of life on the road makes its way well into the music, with songs that effectively capture the spark and spirit that come with traveling the country — and playing country.
“Palomino” releases April 29 on Apple Music.