Wait…did Miranda Lambert end up taking my advice?
When I reviewed the uninspired “Bluebird,” I declared that Lambert needed to “pull up stakes, get the heck away from Nashville and country music, and rest her mind and spirit for a while.” Luckily for Lambert, “uninspired” is in style for country music right now, and “Bluebird” would up as her first Billboard airplay #1 since 2012, earning her career a temporary stay of execution. However, Lambert seems to be using the extra time more wisely than I expected, as “Settling Down,” her third single from Wildcard, digs into some deeper, more-thoughtful questions while finally featuring a decent sound to back them up. I wouldn’t call it a great song, but it’s a step up from the mediocre stuff Lambert has been dumping on us for the last few years, and that’s a welcome change of pace.
The production here still has some of the same problems that “Bluebird” did, but there are a few positive developments that make the sound a better fit for the subject matter. Yes, the percussion line still feels weak, the background electric guitars are too washed-out, the echo effects on the vocals still do more harm than good, and there’s still not much energy behind the mix. However, the heavy use of minor chords and the darker guitar tones (not to mention some creepy strings in the background) give the song an unsettled and ominous feeling, which in turn gives the listener a good sense of the narrator’s inner turmoil and indecision while also adding some weight to the question of settling down or not. (The dobro and especially the deep pre-chorus electric guitars also break through the audio effects to provide some actual texture and bite to the sound.) It’s the sort of mix that works with the writing instead of against it, and its support makes the song that much more interesting and impactful.
Vocally, Lambert’s recent problems have stemmed from her lack of energy rather than technical issues (she sounded more tired than anything else on “Bluebird”), so just the fact that she seems a bit more engaged and invested this time around is a noticeable upgrade. What’s most important, however, is that the song (which Lambert co-wrote) puts her in position to succeed: From her high-profile love life (marriage to and divorce from Blake Shleton, relationships with Anderson East and Evan Felker) to her attitude-filled hits to her independent, give-no-quarter image, this might be the perfect song for Lambert at this point in her career: Should she slow down, or should she keep rolling along? It’s the sort of song that doesn’t need to be sold; the audience buys it the minute it starts rolling out of the speakers, and the fact that Lambert’s delivery feels rejuvenated is just an added benefit.
The lyrics here tell the story of a narrator standing at a crossroads in their life: They’ve been traveling the same path for years and regret nothing, but they’ve now discovered an alternative way of life (bound to a partner and a home), and they’re debating whether or not to trade their wanderlust lifestyle for something more grounded. These lyrics aren’t perfect by any means: The verses are basically the same question over and over, and some of them feel a bit ambiguous (in particular, the early lines about “marigold mornings” and waiting for the rain are slightly confusing about which option they represent), and the “settling up” piece of the hook feels more awkward than it should (is the narrator settling some sort of debt?), but there’s enough variety in the questions to keep them from feeling too repetitive, and they project a real sense of seriousness about the whole issue (this is a big decision, and the narrator is not taking it lightly). In other words, there’s a real maturity to the writing, one that meshes well with the recent narrative of Lambert’s career: Life on the road (or musical careers in general) don’t last forever, and eventually you have to decide to either cough up another roll of quarters or get off of the ride.
“Settling Down” isn’t the Miranda Lambert we’re used to, but it feels like a natural evolution as she transitions into the late stages of her mainstream career. Despite the fact that this came off the same album as “Bluebird,” it gives you the impression that Lambert is stepping back and weighing her options as she plots her next move, and for once the writing and production elevate the song rather than weigh it down. It’s still not a song I’m terribly excited about (and I doubt I’ll remember it much once it’s gone), but it’s better than I expected, and for as much as Lambert’s output has frustrated me over the last few years, that’s about all I can ask for.
Rating: 6/10. Give it a spin or two to see what you think.