In Spielberg’s Minority Report, there’s a moment where Tom Cruise as John Anderton says to a police officer “Everybody runs, Fletch.” It’s so casual a movie moment that it’s not often commented on, but for me, it sums up America, a land where everybody runs. Europeans like Bono might be “Running to Stand Still”, but Americans with their wide-open roads and frontier myths are always running just to be “On the Road Again”.
Like Jack Kerouac, Willie Nelson, and countless Americans before her, Miranda Lambert is obsessed with the imagery of being on the road, of constantly running on said road, of American highways as both a potent symbol and the very definition of the American Dream. She sees traveling on down the road as a means of chasing that ever-elusive, promised dream for Americans: the “Pursuit of Happiness”. That’s a song title, as well as a manifesto, on her latest album, Palomino. A restless troubadour, Miranda Lambert identifies with Mick Jagger’s “Wandering Spirit”, a song that she covers with added gospel uplift from the McCrary Sisters, because it speaks to her of the freedom of America and the open road – of the pursuit of happiness, no less. But just because she’s pursuing it doesn’t mean she’ll find happiness down every road.
Palomino is an extension and a deepening of her favorite themes, then, and its examination of the American Dream being chased and lost on the road would be the most notable thing about it, were the music not such a hoot. In over 20 years as a professional recording artist, she’s honed her craft and singing to the point that no album she releases is a disappointment – her fans know to expect consistent professionalism, idiosyncratic vocal choices, and at least half a dozen concisely written masterpieces every time around from her.
Palomino is no exception, journeying in its 50 minutes through a thrilling musical landscape that encompasses stuttering guitar riffs, honky-tonk sweetness, tender but not overly mushy ballads, and always-expert singing that constantly adapts to its surroundings. These surroundings shift and change quickly from genre to genre, whilst always being rooted in soulful country – a changeability appropriate for an album about life whizzing by on the road.
And, sure enough, there are at least half a dozen concisely written masterpieces, for which credit must be shared with Lambert’s co-writers Luke Dick, Jon Randall, and Natalie Hemby (as well as Mick Jagger – “Wandering Spirit” is a definite highlight). Three songs that debuted on last year’s laid-back, acoustic-only The Marfa Tapes are juiced up with full band backing and all three are improved, with “Geraldene” now leaping out of any speakers or headphones you might have with its electric guitar crunch, whilst “Waxahachie” and “In His Arms” are more subtly embellished by instruments such as the pedal steel guitar and unobtrusive drums. “That’s What Makes the Jukebox Play” uses reverb to add an attractive, shimmering gloss to a ballad suitably enough about the unifying attraction of music.
“Strange” opens with a guitar riff that sounds a lot like Nirvana’s “Polly”, but the song then jolts into very different emotional terrain with the use of more complex loud-quiet dynamics than Nirvana. Such unexpected deployment of loud and quiet sections are also used to stirring effect in the album’s opener “Actin’ Up” and its wonderful closer “Carousel”; just when you think you know where a song is heading, Lambert can suddenly shift to another gear, as she does on the choruses of these songs when they punch in. The trick never gets tiring.
Other songs do get tiring, though. Whilst collaborating with The B-52’s was an inspired choice, it comes as no surprise to learn that their contribution to “Music City Queen” was literally phoned in via Zoom, whilst Lambert was on a plane. Their voices don’t jibe. As a result, the roots-rock funk of the track, which otherwise comes close to mimicking the addictive sound of The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek”, comes nowhere near to sounding natural enough. Similarly, the deft satirical tackling of outdated aspects of the country music scene on “Country Money” and “If I Was a Cowboy” are let down by less than memorable musical backing – more juice was needed to help her land the lyrical punches, in these cases.
But, after all, any journey down the road is bound to have some pit stops. That doesn’t mean the journey’s not worth taking – something Lambert knows full well. Palomino as a whole succeeds in capturing her “Wandering Spirit” (that really should’ve been the title of the album) through a host of characters that are themselves endlessly wandering, often down dead-end alleys, instead of open highways. Their wandering leads them sometimes to frustration and despair. Worse, it leads them to the realization that one day “every show must end”, as the falling trapeze artist on “Carousel” has to come to terms with.
But until the show ends, as it must for us all, what do we make of our lives, asks Lambert implicitly? What keeps us going, moving forwards, running on down the next road?
It’s hard for anyone to know for sure. But one thing Lambert does know, and shows us again and again on Palomino: “Everybody runs”.