If I’m honest, songs like this are what make me feel “Strange.”
Is Nashville trying to send a signal to its leading ladies? Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood are probably the biggest female country stars of this millennium, but they’ve got a single solo #1 on the Billboard country charts between them since 2014 (Lambert got there with 2019’s “Bluebird,”), although the pair has had a few collaboration #1s (strangely enough, both have a #1 hit with Jason Aldean). You get the distinct sense that the genre is trying to play them off the stage, despite the fact that there’s really no one waiting in the wings to replace them (Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini are about as close as you get). It’s too bad, because it tired as Lambert’s material felt a few years ago, it’s been noticeably better lately (“Settling Down,” “If I Was A Cowboy”).
Sadly, Lambert’s latest single “Strange,” the second from her Palomino album, doesn’t quite match the level of its immediate predecessors. It’s a strange song that certainly complies with truth-in-advertising laws, but it winds up feeling empty when you dig into it, and it doesn’t give you much of a reason for the trip it takes you on.
Whoever produced this song certainly earned their paycheck, because the sound is where most of the strangeness emanates from on this track. It may be a prototypical guitar-and-drum foundation, but for lack of a better term, no one has gotten a weirder sound out of these pieces. The no-nonsense acoustic guitar may carry the melody, but the distorted electric guitars (plus the squealing one used on the bridge) and ominous keyboard tones combine with the regular minor chords to create an atmosphere that’s both unsettling and even a little psychedelic (it conjures up images in my mind of UFOs flying over a desert, and I have no idea why). I’m impressed at how well this mix creates a…well, strange atmosphere around this song, and at the same time gives the vocals so much space to tell their story (none of the instruments are super loud, and anything that’s not an acoustic guitar is used sparingly on the verses). I don’t think you could have come up with a better mix for this song, and it’s a pity that the rest of the song can’t quite live up to its example.
Lambert’s performance here is…okay, I guess? On the plus side, there aren’t any technical issues, her long tenure helps her convince the listener that she has the perspective to know when things really feel strange, and there’s a sense of both disbelief and restrained frustration in her delivery (she sounds a bit annoyed on the verses, but amazingly even-keel on the hook). Unfortunately, she struggles to share her feelings with the audience, and they don’t feel any strange vibes or reassurance from her performance they way they feel these things from the sound. When she tries to convince people to hang in there because tomorrow could bring along something different, the listener simply doesn’t believe her or share in her optimism. (In truth, trying to make people feel strange in 2022 is as high a bar to clear as there ever was—in the wake of a pandemic, a roller-coaster economy, and toxic political discourse, the only thing that would feel strange now is to not feel strange.) Lambert doesn’t bring anything to the song that couldn’t be brought by some other artist, and with the odds this stacked against her this, even she doesn’t have the clout to bring her listeners any peace of mind.
The lyrics are where this song really falls apart, for two reasons:
- The narrator here makes a lot of observations about the current state of the world and all the strangeness around us, but while some of these observations connect back to reality (I’ll give them a few points for the Maytag line), most of them range the gamut from overdone (yeah, we’ve been told that “country don’t twang, rock ‘n’ roll ain’t loud”) to completely nonsensical (what exactly does “urban feels suburban” or “Main Street ain’t Main” mean? And when you say “a Lincoln came and a Jefferson went,” since Jefferson is on the $2 bill, doesn’t that imply that we turned a profit?). When you start digging into the song, you’re left with a bunch of confusing and meaningless statement that just leave the listener feeling unsatisfied.
- Ah, but then the narrator suggests doing “anything to keep you sane”…but its first suggestions (smoking and drinking) harken back to the worst of the Cobronavirus era, and even the more innocent suggestions (singing, dancing) feel a bit pointless and wasteful. Maybe this all made more sense when we were all stuck in lockdown two years ago, but in 2022 we’re faced with big problems and have the ability to take productive steps towards resolving them, so doing something inconsequential just for the sake of doing it doesn’t strike me as great advice.
The TL;DR of this section is that I was looking for a lot more from a song like this (more meaning, more action, etc.), and I simply didn’t get it.
I would definitely call this song “Strange,” but I don’t think I would call it much else. Yeah, the production’s good a fitting vibe and Lambert tries her best to capture the weird state we’re in and assure us that we’ll get through it, but the writing doesn’t go far enough in any sense (its observations, its recommendations, its offerings of comfort), and makes the whole thing feel empty inside. It’s not a bad song, but it’s not a terribly good or memorable one either, and it doesn’t measure up to Lambert’s other recent offerings. That said, it’s still better than a fair bit of the stuff clogging up the airwaves right now, which brings us back to our original question: Why is country radio sidelining the genre’s veteran female stalwarts, and why is it replacing them with mediocre male artists? For all the scandals and talk about better radio balance, the genre’s allergy to female artists persists, and given the quality tracks we’ve gotten from women in recent years, why country music continues to ignore them is absolutely baffling.
Rating: 5/10. It’s pretty “meh” to me, but at least it’s better than, say, Blake Shelton.