Miranda Lambert goes home again on 'The weight of these wings': critic's take

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The numbered U.S. highway system began in Wisconsin in 1918, and in Miranda Lambert's catalog with her very first single -- "Me And Charlie Talking," from 2005's Kerosene. "The road you take don't always lead you home," she sang in that ode to the sweet folly of childhood love. It was also the first and last time she'd sing about being the one left behind -- from then on, the momentum was always with Miranda.

The announcement of Lambert's sixth album, The Weight of These Wings (Nov. 18, Sony Music Nashville), had fans expecting a very particular kind of journey: a fork in the road, since she started writing in earnest shortly after the announcement of her split from her husband of four years, fellow Nashville star Blake Shelton. But she was clear: "I'm never gonna have an album that's quote-unquote a 'heartbreak album,'" Lambert said in an interview with Billboard this summer. "Heartbreak" or not, Shelton's shadow does occasionally fall across the hefty double album. "You're all over this damn nation," Lambert sings on the wherever-you-go-there-he-is anthem "Six Degrees of Separation." On "Well-Rested," which she co-wrote with boyfriend Anderson East, she's still conflicted: "While my body is present, my heart is absent."

Locating that pesky organ requires that same motif Lambert's been tackling since her first song: the open road. It's an aesthetic preoccupation as well as a thematic one -- one way Miranda's consistently set herself apart from the slick country FM crowd is the low, roadhouse-ready rumble that she sneaks into even her glossiest singles. Fittingly, "Runnin' Just in Case" starts the album with a rolling pedal bass line supported by a heartbeat drum, growing into the most serene song about running away imaginable ("There's trouble where I'm going, but I'm gonna go there anyway"). Throughout, the road is both clean slate ("There's nothing white lines can't erase" from "Getaway Driver;" "Another vice, another town/where my past can't run me down" from "Vice") and way of life ("Highway Vagabond," "I've Got Wheels," "Covered Wagon"). What it isn't, in Lambert's world, is cliche: Forget just rolling the windows down and listening to a Tim McGraw song -- she's searching for something more.

PHOTOS: Miranda Lambert through the years

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Miranda Lambert through the years
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Miranda Lambert through the years
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 08: Singer-songwriter Miranda Lambert, winner of Best Country Album for 'Platinum,' poses in the press room during The 57th Annual GRAMMY Awards at the STAPLES Center on February 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Country music artist Miranda Lambert poses for a portrait at her home near Lindale, Texas, March 23, 2005. (AP Photo/Tim Sharp)
WASHINGTON - APRIL 30: Singer Miranda Lambert attends the White House Correspondents' Dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel on April 30, 2005 in Washington DC. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)
Miranda Lambert is shown on her tour bus in Nashville, Tenn., on March 21, 2007. She torched a cheating lover's home in "Kerosene," loaded up a shotgun for an abusive man in "Gunpowder & Lead," and named the title track to her May 1 release "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." But Lambert laughs at the suggestion she might be the girlfriend from hell. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
LAS VEGAS - MAY 21: Musician Miranda Lambert performs onstage during the rehearsals for Academy of Country Music Awards held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 21, 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS - MAY 23: Country music artist Miranda Lambert arrives at the 41st Annual Academy Of Country Music Awards held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 23, 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 10: Singers Miranda Lambert (L) and Blake Shelton arrive at the Sony BMG Music 2008 Grammy Awards After Party held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 10, 2008 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS - MAY 14: Music artist Miranda Lambert performs during the Academy of Country Music New Artists' Party for a Cause show at the MGM Grand Conference Center May 14, 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS - MAY 14: Singer Miranda Lambert performs onstage during the first ever Academy Of Country Music New Artists' Show Party for a Cause, benefiting the ACM Charitable Fund held at the MGM Grand Ballroom, MGM Grand Conference Center on May 14, 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS - MAY 18: Musicians Miranda Lambert (L) and Blake Shelton arrives at the 43rd annual Academy Of Country Music Awards held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 18, 2008 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 14: Singer/Songwriter Miranda Lambert performs at the 2009 CMA Music Festival at LP Field on June 14, 2009 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - FEBRUARY 26: Singer/Songwriter/Honoree Miranda Lambert and Singer/Songwriter/Boyfriend Blake Shelton, pose as BMI Honors Miranda Lambert's for her First #1single with a 1940's style bash and a few hundred of her friends at The Cellar on February 26, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for BMI)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 31: Singer Miranda Lambert arrives at the 52nd Annual GRAMMY Awards held at Staples Center on January 31, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS - APRIL 18: Musician Miranda Lambert arrives for the 45th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 18, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS - APRIL 18: (L-R) Recording artist John Fogerty, singer Miranda Lambert, recording artist Brad Paisley, and singer Carrie Underwood perform onstage during the 45th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 18, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/ACMA2010/Getty Images for ACMA)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 13: Singer/Songwriter Blake Shelton is joined by Singer/Sonwriter and Fiancee Miranda Lambert during the 2010 CMA Music Festival on June 13, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 05: Vince Gill, Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban perform onstage at the 2010 We're All For The Hall benefit concert at the Bridgestone Arena on October 5, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 10: Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton attend the 44th Annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 10, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 10: Song of the Year winner, Album of the Year winner and Female Vocalist of the Year Miranda Lambert attends the 44th Annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 10, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 01: Singer Miranda Lambert poses in the press room during the GRAMMY Nominations Concert Live at Club Nokia on December 1, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 13: Singer Miranda Lambert arrives at The 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards held at Staples Center on February 13, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 13: Musician Miranda Lambert, winner of the Best Female Country Vocal Performance award for ''The House That Built Me' poses in the press room at The 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards held at Staples Center on February 13, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 04: Musicians Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert speak onstage during ACM Presents: Girls' Night Out: Superstar Women of Country concert held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 4, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 05: Musicians Angaleena Presley (L) and Miranda Lambert of the Pistol Annies perform onstage at the American Country Awards 2011 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 5, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 12: Singer Miranda Lambert arrives at the 54th Annual GRAMMY Awards held at Staples Center on February 12, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 01: (L-R) Co-host Blake Shelton and recording artist Miranda Lambert arrive at the 47th Annual Academy Of Country Music Awards held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 1, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 01: Singer Miranda Lambert performs onstage at the 47th Annual Academy Of Country Music Awards held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 1, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
INDIO, CA - APRIL 28: Singer Miranda Lambert during the Stagecoach Country Music Festival held at the Empire Polo Field on April 28, 2012 in Indio, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach)
INDIO, CA - APRIL 28: Musicians Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert perform onstage during the Stagecoach Country Music Festival held at the Empire Polo Field on April 28, 2012 in Indio, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Stagecoach)
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 10: Singer Miranda Lambert arrives at the 2012 American Country Awards at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on December 10, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 07: Singers Blake Shelton (L) and Miranda Lambert accept the Song of the Year award onstage during the 48th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 7, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 06: Musician Miranda Lambert performs during the 2013 CMA Music Festival on June 6, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 24: Singer Miranda Lambert performs onstage at 2014 MusiCares Person Of The Year Honoring Carole King at Los Angeles Convention Center on January 24, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 26: Singer Miranda Lambert attends the 56th GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 26: Musicians Miranda Lambert and Billie Joe Armstrong perform onstage during the 56th GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 06: Musician Miranda Lambert attends the 49th Annual Academy Of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 6, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 06: Recording artist Miranda Lambert performs onstage during the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 6, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 06: Recording artist Miranda Lambert accepts the Single Record of the Year award for 'Mama's Broken Heart' onstage during the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 6, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - MAY 18: Recording artists Miranda Lambert (L) and Carrie Underwood perform during the 2014 Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 18, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 06: Miranda Lambert performs during the 2014 CMA Festival on June 6, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 09: Singer-songwriter Miranda Lambert attends Fashion Rocks 2014 presented by Three Lions Entertainment at the Barclays Center of Brooklyn on September 9, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Three Lions Entertainment)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 09: Singer Miranda Lambert performs onstage at Fashion Rocks 2014 presented by Three Lions Entertainment at the Barclays Center of Brooklyn on September 9, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Three Lions Entertainment)
NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 02: Miranda Lambert attends the 2014 CMT Artists Of The Year at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on December 2, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for CMT)
NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 15: Miranda Lambert attends the 2014 American Country Countdown Awards at Music City Center on December 15, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images for dcp)
NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 15: Recording artist Miranda Lambert performs onstage at the 2014 American Country Countdown Awards at Music City Center on December 15, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for dcp)
NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 15: Recording artists Miranda Lambert (L), and Kelly Clarkson perform onstage during the 2014 American Country Countdown Awards at Music City Center on December 15, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for dcp)
Miranda Lambert performs on stage at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles February 8, 2015. AFP PHOTO/ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 08: Musician Miranda Lambert attends The 57th Annual GRAMMY Awards at the STAPLES Center on February 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 18: Recording artists Patty Loveless (L) and Miranda Lambert perform onstage during ACM Presents: Superstar Duets at Globe Life Park in Arlington on April 18, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for dcp)
ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 19: Singer Miranda Lambert attends the 50th Academy Of Country Music Awards at AT&T Stadium on April 19, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 19: Honoree Miranda Lambert accepts the award for Song of the Year for 'Automatic' onstage during the 50th Academy Of Country Music Awards at AT&T Stadium on April 19, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images for dcp)
DOVER, DE - JUNE 27: Musician Miranda Lambert performs onstage during day 2 of the Big Barrel Country Music Festival on June 27, 2015 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Big Barrel)
Miranda Lambert arrives at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
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Instead of citing beer and pick up trucks -- which, OK, do make an appearance or two -- the songs find a sense of place holistically. Some songs are meant for Christmas lights and whiskey shots ("Ugly Lights"), others come equipped with amphitheater-ready reverb ("Well-Rested"), and still others shouldn't ever be performed beyond a campfire ("Dear Old Sun"). It's a looser, messier, more relaxed take on country music, punctuated with as many ambient synths and crunchy distortion pedals as banjos and slide guitars -- there's even some paper shuffling and recording noise left in for effect, though despite that sonic breadth the overall sound is a quiet one. Lambert's voice sounds at ease -- if a little less dynamic than usual -- over the project's lax tempos: fans looking for her trademark punchy head voice should turn to "We Should Be Friends" or "For The Birds," both good candidates for the next radio single.

The album's stripped-down, organic sound necessarily focuses attention on the songwriting, a good thing as Lambert stretches her chops with increasingly abstract forays into introspection. Some of the strongest songs -- "Use My Heart," "Tin Man," "To Learn Her" -- are also the ones without much narrative at all. Instead of fairytales or tragedies they offer ambiguity, the kind that too often comes with age instead of the wisdom we've been promised. Out of 24 songs there are zero about being wronged -- but quite a few about being wrong, creating a hangovers-and-all self-portrait. But it's not all swooning and self-serious: "Pink Sunglasses," "Bad Boy," and "We Should Be Friends" offer a healthy dose of the resigned -- yet sharp -- humor that country music does so well. That combination means the one word to describe The Weight of These Wings, with its lived-in production and learned-the-hard-way lyrics, is mature.

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As Lambert traces her route from broken to whole along America's blue highways (musical and otherwise), the album finds a pervading sense of contentment. "If we ain't broke down than we ain't doing something right," she sings on "Highway Vagabond" of the beauty in transition, only accessible after seeing firsthand that stability is a myth designed to sell Hallmark cards and Kleenex. Lambert moved back to Nashville after married life drew her from Music City to her "actual" hometowns in Oklahoma and Texas -- and on The Weight Of These Wings, she's singing about friendship for close to the first time, a theme supported by the credits' close-knit web of collaborators. Living closer to Nashville meant longtime co-writers like Natalie Hemby could drop everything at a moment's notice and come work. "Having her here has been so awesome, because she'll say, 'Hey come over, I have a song idea' -- I'll come over at like 8:30 and then we write 'til 2 in the morning," says Hemby. "Get up the next night and do it again. It was really fun -- probably the most fun I've ever had writing with her."

Considering the heaviness of the circumstances under which it was created, The Weight of These Wings is defiant in its relative levity, featuring an again-smitten Lambert banded together with a close crew of musical compatriots and a reinvigorated sense of creative self. But for those who fear Miranda's contentment might become complacency, the album's finale -- still -- eschews endings for new beginnings: "I've got wheels/ I'm rolling on."

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