About halfway through her boldly-titled fifth album Platinum, Miranda Lambert gets ready to confess. As a guitar mantra drones and hovers, she puts on her make-up in an attempt to put off the “hard stuff” (left undefined). Then, an insistent arena kick drum and bicep-flexin’ strum start her engine, and Lambert dishes: She’s bitchin’ back and forth with her mom, like always. Will this shit ever end? Probably not. The only song on Platinum she wrote solo, “Bathroom Sink” feels close to the bone, especially given her tight relationship with her parents.
Then, leaning in a tad more, Lambert elaborates on the tight, fraught mother-daughter connection: “She taught me how to pray and drink/ And how to cling to bathroom sinks.” BA-DA-BOMBBBBB! The whole band drops the hammer and we’re off. Lambert’s voice ascends, and she rips off some of the lines that could inspire a “gal-country” answer to the current bro-country chest-bump: “It’s amazing the amount of rejection that I see in my reflection/ And I can’t get out of the way/ I’m looking forward to the girl I wanna be/ But regret has got a way of staring me right in the face/ So I try not to waste too much time at the bathroom sink.”
In a 2003 promo video for the country-music reality show Nashville Star, a then 19-year-old Lambert claimed that she hadn’t experienced many “tough times,” but understood broken relationships and heartache because her parents, Rick and Bev, were private investigators. Through their volatile, often-off-the-books work, she’d heard a lifetime of rough, sad, violent stories. Much of her work clearly draws on her Texas childhood, and the gradually maturing years after. “Gunpowder and Lead” (from 2007′s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) grew out of the fact that her mom and dad occasionally housed abused women and children while Lambert was growing up. “Mama’s Broken Heart” (from 2011′s Four the Record, co-written by peers Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark) spotlights a teenager wracked by amour fou who’s battling with an impatient mom; it isn’t directly autobiographical, but resonated intensely with Lambert. And then, of course, there’s her only No. 1, the “House That Built Me” (from 2009′s Revolution, written by Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas), which even her parents couldn’t believe their daughter didn’t pen, so accurate were some of the details to the family’s life.
But Platinum, more successfully than Four the Record, moves Lambert out of the house that built her into her own Oklahoma digs and the country-star constellation beyond, the one she’s joined along with husband and country titan Blake Shelton. One of the album’s livelier hair-tossers, “Priscilla” (its opening acoustic riff recalls George Michael’s “Faith”), sympathetically nods to Elvis’s youngest bride, as Lambert playfully sneers, “Married to a man who’s married to attention.” She experienced the tabloid gauntlet for the first time since her marriage to Shelton, and wonders aloud how she can be “the first to make it last.”
What makes Lambert such an artist to root for is that she’s already fought the country bros on their own blustery badass terms — specifically: revenge songs “Kerosene” (where she Left Eyes a cheatin’ boyfriend’s house) and “Gunpowder and Lead” (where she takes a shotgun to an abusive lover) — and is now intently setting her own agenda. It’s a clear challenge for women artists who don’t have such a readymade mob thirsty for anthems about rebelliously actin’ a fool. Though Lambert has had her share of party tunes, as have other women, there’s no equivalent to the bro template of goin’ muddin’ in a truck on a summer weekend, while chuggin’ beer and eatin’ catfish and crankin’ country songs where rappers drop by to grab the youth demographic and then get airlifted back to their urban environments pronto.
Lambert’s got an undeniable swagger on Platinum (explicitly with the ooh-ing and ahh-ing romp “Little Red Wagon”), but it’s shot through with a wide range of emotions, some conflicted, some not, some still evolving. She eases into the album slyly with “Girls,” a swooning, heart-shot rocker that sketches out a series of complex gal-country archetypes: “Imagine a fighter with a centerfold face/ Come from a long line of blue collars and lace” or “Imagine a winner holding pink champagne/ Still loves her daddy but changes her name.” If you’ve ever seen Lambert live, you can imagine her relishing these lines, and then looking around proudly at her road-hog band, leading them with an enthusiasm that’s both sprightly up-and-comer and old-hand pro. Again, she drops a divine-hammer of a line: “If you think you’re the only one that she’ll want in this world/ Then you don’t know nothing about girls.” Another candidate for live-show rallying cry of the year: “What doesn’t kill you makes you blonder” (from the title track).
Frustratingly, though, this album still might not be Lambert’s career-defining moment. First single “Automatic” is quite good, but also waves a bit wanly at a time before mod’rn livin’, when clothes were hung on the line to dry and the singer records the “Country Countdown” on cassette off the radio (it’s also perhaps the first song to ever wax nostalgic about the ’70s energy crisis). “Two Rings Shy,” written with Brandy Clark, has none of the pair’s usual wit and fire (and suffers from goofy, backassward-guitar production). “Just Another Sunday in the South” takes its title from a 1989 hit by Muscle Shoals session shlumps Shenandoah, but pales by comparison. And “Something Bad,” the Thelma-and-Louise team-up with Carrie Underwood, never elevates past its faux-Aerosmith chanting and clapping and snippets of guitar wank.
Still, this is a powerful, necessary album, and Lambert — a fighter with a centerfold face — is a performer hot on a mission. Whether it’s forming a low-key honky-tonk side group, the Pistol Annies, simply to enjoy the experience of being in a band with other talented women (Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley) who need a career boost, or stomping around in glitter and denim and self-tanner with Underwood, she’s a sista-rockin’ pistol with wings. How big can her tent get? It’s gonna be an edifying fucking hootenanny to watch.