Miranda Lambert waits until she’s 12 songs into her new album to uncork the kind of aggression that's helped her become one of the biggest stars in country music.
An awards-show-ready duet with Carrie Underwood, “Somethin’ Bad,” casts the two singers as a pair of troublemakers on the prowl -- “the real-life Thelma and Louise,” as Lambert puts it, hauling down to New Orleans. There’s talk of an abandoned wedding and, inevitably, a full tank of gas, set over a beat more or less indistinguishable from the one in Jay Z’s “99 Problems.”
But compared to Lambert’s earlier barn burners -- “Kerosene,” “Gunpowder and Lead,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” -- this song starts a pretty weak fire. There’s no urgency in either star’s voice and, worse, no sense of what’s being torched; it’s a sneering endorsement of rebellion, rather than the thing itself.
If “Somethin’ Bad” lives down to its apt title, though, it’s an exception on the otherwise excellent “Platinum,” which applies Lambert’s signature mischief in new, more convincingly exuberant ways.
Named for the color of her hair as well as for the sales status achieved by her four previous records, “Platinum” takes on the indignity of aging with wry humor, as in “Gravity Is a B**ch,” and cheerful determination, as in the title track, where the 30-year-old Lambert insists, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder.”
She’s similarly resolute on the subject of no-good men in the punky “Little Red Wagon” (“I love my apron, but I ain’t your mama,” she declares) and “Two Rings Shy,” which she co-wrote with Brandy Clark, one of several young female singers (along with Kasey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe) who have used Lambert’s commercial success as cover for their own incursions into the country mainstream.
“I ain’t gonna get dressed up just to be your clown,” she sings over an appealingly lopsided groove. “Ain’t gonna paint this pretty face like you paint the town.”
In “Bathroom Sink,” a rocker that starts small but builds to a pummeling climax, Lambert turns that glare to her own image, assessing what she finds in the mirror with unflinching candor: “It’s amazing the amount of rejection that I see in my reflection, and I can’t get out of the way.” The only tune here she wrote without assistance from the Nashville songwriting machine, “Bathroom Sink” funnels the intensity of Lambert’s wild-child rave-ups into a confession so personal that you feel like an invader of her privacy listening to it.
That’s a big deal, as elsewhere on “Platinum” (and in many of the recent interviews about the album), Lambert makes no bones about her frustration with the gossip-mongers drawn to her escalating celebrity and her marriage to another country star, Blake Shelton.
“We had to put up a gate to find time to procreate,” she sings in “Priscilla,” where she identifies “woman to woman” with the former wife of Elvis Presley. “Or at least that’s what we read.”
Perhaps it’s that loss of privacy that also explains the seam of nostalgia that runs through “Platinum.” In one song with an unprintable title -- think “Old Stuff,” only more colorful -- she lists some of her beloved relics: “old turntables, vinyl records, hand-me-down tools, Black & Decker.” “Automatic,” the album’s lead single, takes the same approach, though with far less wit; it’s an encomium to simpler days as lazily unexamined as “Somethin’ Bad.”
But Lambert hasn’t lost her feel for the innocence she can no longer claim. On a record full of sturdy, headstrong roots music, one unexpected highlight is the album’s softest moment, “Smokin’ and Drinkin’.” Co-written by the deeply crafty Luke Laird and Shane McAnally and featuring creamy backing vocals by Little Big Town, this country-soul gem lovingly summons a time when “we were young enough to not know enough that those were the days that we’re gonna miss.”
She’s as good now with a spark as she once was with a flame.
Three and a half stars
(RCA Nashville)Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times