After a run of seven solo albums that holds its own against any artist in recent (or even distant) memory, Miranda Lambert took the weirdness of the pandemic as an opportunity to throw us her first real curveball: The Marfa Tapes, a collaborative full-length effort with songwriting friends Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, released in the spring of 2021.
Marfa—named after the famously artsy West Texas town—brought out a new look for Lambert. Stocked with raw recordings of tunes performed informally on acoustic guitars (and that’s about it), it showcased her softer side and shined a light on her songwriting, which is currently unparalleled in country music—and beyond. Animal sounds and the crackle of a campfire in the background only added to the project’s warm, intimate and inviting feel.
You won’t hear those kinds of ambient details on Palomino, Lambert’s ninth album and a return to the shit-kicking sound for which she’s known. At 15 tracks long, it’s a smorgasbord of Lambert specialties: traditionalist country, vivid character sketches, revved-up rock guitars, double-take turns of phrase, pop curiosity, place names and incredible consistency. It may not be her best album, but it is a very worthy entry in what is quickly becoming one of the best recorded catalogs in music. Period.
Three of the songs on Palomino are Marfa Tapes holdovers with new coats of paint: “In His Arms” is now wrapped in gauzy guitars and echo, “Waxahachie” gets a full arrangement that transforms a sad, solo acoustic tune into a surefire country radio hit, and “Geraldene”—a refurbishment, sort of, of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” that trades the original’s anxiety for defiance—benefits from its swaggering blues-rock upgrade.
Elsewhere, Lambert tries out a number of styles and sounds, from the rubbery funk guitars that drive “Actin’ Up” and the shimmering atmosphere of “If I Was a Cowboy” to the slow-burning folk of album closer “Carousel” and the gospel choir handclaps and vocals that power a cover of the 1993 Mick Jagger deep cut “Wandering Spirit.” There’s even a collaboration with The B-52’s called “Music City Queen” that brings together a swampy Southern groove and disco vibes. While it’s fun—and it’s always good to hear The B-52’s doing B-52’s things—it feels like a case where the idea was better than the execution.
But back to “Wandering Spirit” for a moment. Buried near the end of Jagger’s unexceptional third solo album, it may seem like an odd choice for Palomino’s only cover. Until, that is, you listen closely to the lyrics and realize Jagger somehow wrote Miranda Lambert’s theme song decades ago. The key passage is simple: “I’m a wandering spirit / And I’m a restless soul.”
Lambert has always written songs about leaving one place and heading somewhere else (or nowhere in particular), but never more so than on Palomino, where she mentions (deep breath) the Mojave Desert, Colorado, California, Lake Havasu, South Dakota, Reno and Las Vegas, Santa Monica, Alameda, Biloxi, Shreveport and the Cumberland River, plus El Paso, Dallas, San Antonio and Amarillo, Texas (exhale). And that’s just the first half of the album!
To be clear, this is not a shtick or a crutch, but a top-shelf songwriter (and a handful of her trusted co-writers, it should be said) working to create a familiar world for their characters to explore. This is where the señorita in “Actin’ Up” gets to have a little fun, the protagonist in “Scenes” turns over a new leaf, the stranger drinks “anger on the rocks” in “That’s What Makes the Jukebox Play” and Carol Jean, the egg tycoon, “rides her hens around town in a Coup de Ville” in “Country Money.” And it’s where, in “Pursuit of Happiness,” Lambert sings:
Yeah, I’m runnin’ just as fast as my heart can
Some call me a fool and some just call it restlessness
But I keep on runnin’
Changing tires and changing plans
I call it my pursuit of happiness
Note to Miranda: Keep pursuing that happiness, no matter where it takes you. We’ll be here and ready to listen when you come back around again.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.