When Miranda Lambert announced her upcoming Las Vegas residency, she was following in the footsteps of kindred artists who evolved from icons into brands: think Cher, Shania Twain, Whitney Houston’s hologram. It’s not off-script for a woman who, 20-plus years into her career, is approaching the status of another genre-transcending icon-turned-industry, Dolly Parton, whose CV Lambert’s has often mirrored: songwriter, performer, celebrity-coupledom survivor, chart-topping duet partner, all-star vocal trio co-leader, inclusive club jam dabbler. Lambert’s breadth is on full display on Palomino, a loose concept album about the American road, completed during two years spent largely off-tour. It’s a scattershot travelogue, idealized and hopeful, bright with giddy pleasures, welled tears, and some of her best-ever songwriting.
In many ways Palomino springs directly from The Marfa Tapes, Lambert’s winning 2021 writers round with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, full of deeply-felt storytelling and boozy punchlines. Palomino reimagines some of Marfa’s highlights and re-engages Randall, a former Emmylou Harris sideman, as co-producer and co-writer alongside Lambert’s longtime MVPs, Luke Dick and Natalie Hemby. Unlike the dusky Nebraska sound and campfire harmonies of The Marfa Tapes, Palomino is not tonally coherent. But neither was 2016’s The Weight of These Wings, Lambert’s most ambitious display to date, and that record’s unleashed spirit returns on Palomino, demonstrating the tensile strength of Lambert’s craft in all sorts of settings.
It peels out with “Actin’ Up,” a modern Music Row rhyme showcase channeling Elvis’ Sun sessions with the spirit of an Eminem freestyle, stuttering consonants and spitting random signifiers: Billy Bob’s Texas, Tiger Woods, “Mony Mony.” After some road-trip scene-setting (“Scenes”), Lambert settles in for the ride with some Marfa Tapes remakes. “In His Arms” was already near-perfect in its fireside-demo iteration; here its acoustic guitar frame gets wrapped in a lovelorn country-western dreamscape, with watercolor-washes of electric guitar and steel. Benefiting more from a fuller arrangement is “Geraldene,” a feisty dress-down that echoes the scenario and title of Parton’s love-triangle signature, albeit with more of a “Fist City” attitude: “You’re trailer park pretty,” Lambert sings, “but you’re never gonna be Jolene.”
“Music City Queen,” a funky strut about a riverboat with another nod to country’s high priestess, features prominent guest vocals by the B-52’s, a Southern band whose camp sensibility always felt Parton-esque. “Tina never quite had a Hollywood body/But she makes a damn good look-alike Dolly,” sasses Lambert, Schneider answering “woo, Dolly!” in his best “Rock Lobster” bray. It’s an inspired gesture on a goofy song that, like much of the album—see “Country Money”’s Southern-rock swag and the honky-tonk take on Mick Jagger’s juke-jointed 1993 solo track “Wandering Spirit”—hums with the joy of master musicians screwing around, reveling in process and each other’s company. It feels more about having fun than about song-crafting for the ages.