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.
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.
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."