“Palomino” is Miranda Lambert’s fourth studio album of the past decade, but that number doesn’t quite capture the tear she’s been on. That period also saw her release three albums with her trio Pistol Annies, as well as last year’s stripped-down demo collection “The Marfa Tapes,” on which Lambert and fellow Texans Jack Ingram and Jon Randall traded tunes and banter over a campfire. And she’s hardly been cranking out assembly-line product: 2016’s purgative post-divorce double-album “The Weight of These Wings” seemed strenuously positioned to be her masterpiece — fairly so, because it was — and while 2019’s “Wildcard” was far lighter in tone, it also saw Lambert stretching her sound to accommodate new genres, from new wave to Motörhead-style heavy metal. Nothing she’s done of late has been a radical departure, but she’s taken pains to avoid resting on her laurels.
Considering that track record, “Palomino’s” most surprising quality is its seeming effortlessness. While it’s considerably more polished than “The Marfa Tapes,” some of that project’s first-take spirit survives here, and Lambert sees no need to stray too far outside her wheelhouse. Playing to her strengths without falling into a rut, it’s yet another rock-solid entry in one of the 21st century’s most ruthlessly consistent discographies.
Presented as a loose travelogue, “Palomino” follows a motley cast of characters as they drift across the southern U.S., fueled by “gasoline, memories and nicotine.” Nomadic restlessness is hardly a new theme for Lambert — or any country singer, for that matter — but it’s one that suits her particular gift for navigating the many shades of gray between liberation and longing. Her voice is impeccable, and only seems to be improving with age; the lingering “Nashville Star” pyrotechnics and gum-smacking sociopathy of her early work have long since been toned down, replaced by an ever-even tone, nicely burnished by strategic splashes of grit.
But as always, Lambert’s true vocal genius lies not just in her range but in her phrasing. “Palomino” has no shortage of classic Lambertian one-liners that only she could properly pull off, whether she’s throwing shade (“You’re trailer park-pretty, but you’re never gonna be Jolene”), cheekily self-mythologizing (“This dove never really gets lonesome / Never begged, never borrowed, but I stole some”) or sketching out an entire short story in a few tossed-off bars. (“Waxahachie’s” opening couplet is a song unto itself: “Nobody ever left New Orleans as mad as I was / I wrote a lipstick letter on the mirror with a bourbon buzz.”)
“Waxahachie” is one of three songs from “The Marfa Tapes” resurrected here, and while some listeners might miss the warts-and-all intimacy of the 2021 recordings, each of them blossoms with a full-band treatment. None more so than “In His Arms,” on which Lambert’s lovelorn vocal floats alongside gossamer brushstrokes of pedal steel and organ, producing a perfect little slice of nocturnal melancholy, all the more effective for resisting the urge to reach for the rafters.
Aside from those Lambert-Ingram-Randall compositions, the core songwriting trio at work on “Palomino” comprises the star and longtime co-conspirators Natalie Hemby and Luke Dick, responsible for roughly half the album’s tracks. Lambert and Hemby’s collaborations reach all the way back to 2009’s “Revolution,” and the group has a knack for expertly crafted country-pop gems that don’t reinvent the wheel so much as find an idiosyncratic new rhinestone pattern to bedazzle the spokes. Their best work here is saved for the closer. Structured like a Nicholas Sparks take on “Pancho and Lefty,” “Carousel” tells the story of a circus performer’s tragic love affair with a trapeze artist named Harlan Giovanni, as she looks back on her sequined ’80s glory days from her home in Nacogdoches. If that premise sounds like a gooey slab of kitsch, the song is anything but — it’s an absolute heartbreaker, the kind of high-concept tearjerker that requires a Reba-caliber interpreter to really put across, and Lambert nails every line. It’s the best ballad she’s sung since “Tin Man,” and one of her best, period.
“Palomino’s” middle stretch sees Lambert venturing out on a limb somewhat, with entertaining if unspectacular results. “Music City Queen” is an ode to a run-down riverboat casino, with featured guests the B-52s offering ironic commentary and interpolating “Proud Mary” in the background; the song is every bit as tacky as its subject, which of course is the point. The album’s sole cover comes right after: a propulsive take on Mick Jagger’s 1993 solo track “Wandering Spirit.” Lambert gives it a faithful reading, and the globe-trotting lyrics jibe with the record’s overall theme, but only Rob McNelley’s unhinged slide guitar really lingers in the memory when the song’s over.
Much better are the lead-off single “If I Was a Cowboy” (a clear tip of the Stetson to Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy”) and the shuffle-time jam “I’ll Be Lovin’ You.” The latter is probably the most infectious song here, and the likeliest candidate to succeed “Bluebird” as “Palomino’s” slow-building crossover. It’s easy to imagine a track like this ending up in the hands of any number of hit-hunting younger singers, but impossible to imagine anyone else investing it with Lambert’s precise calibration of wistfulness and swagger. And that goes for the rest of the album too. For all of “Palomino’s” celebrations of highway vagabondage, and all of Lambert’s promises to “never be a number on a population sign,” she’s never sounded more perfectly at home.