There’s a reason why Miranda Lambert is one of the most consistently interesting and critically acclaimed artists in mainstream country music. She is not afraid to take risks. Such risks continue on her aptly titled fourth release Four the Record, an effort characterized by creative experimentation, though the results are slightly less consistent than we would normally expect from Lambert.
Four the Record experiments with a diversity of sounds, styles, and influences. How appropriate, then, that the album opens with “All Kinds of Kinds” – a song that celebrates diversity. The lyrics paint colorful visual images of a wedding beneath a circus tent between an acrobat and a human cannonball, of a marriage between a pharmacist and a cross-dressing congressman, while the third verse taps into the narrators desire to explore her own unique identity. Lambert goes in an unexpected direction with the standout track “Fine Tune,” which builds on a metaphor of an “engine of a heart that would not start ’til you showed up with a master-key.” The track finds Lambert singing over a heavy beat backed with bluesy electric guitars, which ends up sounding pretty cool, though it could do with out the excessive vocal processing. It only loosely qualifies as “country music,” and its sound will likely prove polarizing, but the off-beat styling makes it one of the album’s most unusual and interesting tracks. (Plus the coolest thing since hearing Faith Hill sing “centrifugal motion” has got to be Miranda singing “defibrillator”)
Lambert shares writing credits on half of the album’s tracks, but there are times when she falls shy of her usual songwriting standards. Lead single “Baggage Claim,” co-written with Luke Laird and Natalie Hembry, draws on a previously unused metaphor, only to stretch the metaphor until it nearly breaks. To her credit, however, Lambert draws on some strong sources of outside material, with perhaps the best case being her version of David Rawlings and Gillian Welch’s “Look at Miss Ohio.” Brandi Carlile’s “Same Old You,” is a smart, self-realizing composition that shows traces of Loretta Lynn influence, and that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on Lambert fantastic Pistol Annies album. On the other hand, her co-write with fellow Annie Angaleena Presley is surprisingly one-dimensional, and almost sounds like a song that just wasn’t quite good enough to make it onto the Pistol Annies album.
Perhaps the album’s most disappointing track is “Better In the Long Run” – the obligatory duet with hubby Blake Shelton, which suffers from an over-the-top performance on Shelton’s part, as well as an extremely boring central hook. It sounds like something that songwriter Ashley Monroe must have written on an off-day. The results are quite disheartening, considering the inherently lofty potential of a duet between vocalists of Shelton and Lambert’s caliber (which their past collaborations often came much closer to fulfilling).
Production choices are generally beneficial, with a few exceptions. Lead single “Baggage Claim” boats infectious acoustic strumming and hand claps, which serve to elevate its rather clunky lyrics. The bitter “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a stronger lyric, but the chorus rocks out so hard that you’ll be diving for the knob to lower the volume, though the lightly percussive intro works well. Fortunately, there are plenty of moments in which strong lyrics meet good protection, thus making for some notable album highlights. On Miranda’s self-written “Dear Diamond,” a light contemporary arrangement underscores her deeply emotional performance, which is bolstered by vocal harmonies of the ever-excellent Patty Loveless, while a light acoustic arrangement perfectly frames the bouncy melody of “Same Old You.”
Though the album has its share of missteps, its best and most interesting tracks are enough to reaffirm the fact that Lambert is not content to settle into a creative rut of half-hearted repetition. It’s clear that her work continues to be characterized by restless creativity, and though Four the Record is not Miranda’s all-time best album, it’s more than interesting enough to have us waiting with bated breath to see what she’ll do with record number five.