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Wildcard (Sony)

Finding another stash of quality mainstream country songs from – hold your britches country radio, they do exist – a woman! might have you posit this as another riposte or alternative to the genre’s dominant strand of drinkin’/rootin’/truck horn-tootin’ boys in hats.

Which it is, of course, though bro country is so relentlessly dumb that one doesn’t so much stand in opposition to it as avert one’s eyes and wait for the dry humping to end.

(Let’s not allow to slide by either the fact that almost all the writers on those boofhead albums are men, while pretty much the best country music out there for some years is written or co-written by women.)

However, I think its more pertinent role is as the most effective counter to the less obnoxious, easier on the ear and liver, end of boy country: the earnest, crafted surfaces and shallow, empty centres of your Keith Urbans, Morgan Evans and the like.

What Miranda Lambert shows yet again – this is her 10th album in 14 years and the last few in particular have been excellent – is that it is possible to be sardonic and meaningful, playing in the familiar and bringing something fresh to it, straightforwardly appealing and offering depths, playing universal and feeling though it’s emotions come from a real person not an algorithm.

In other words, making popular country that doesn’t have to hide that it is smart too.

Take a run at Tequila Does and Pretty Bitchin’ for example, not even the best songs on the album but the kind of songs which might end up on your standard bloke album – not least because they’re co-written with mostly men.

Tequila Does occupies familiar territory – the “drinking is my only friend” strand – with an intro like George Jones, verses like Loretta Lynn and a chorus that pulls up to the bar in an easy ride stroll a sniff away from The Eagles. But the kicker comes in the dry kiss-offs for the domestic beer-drinking men in this bar who just aren’t cutting it, who “don’t give me that border town buzz/Like tequila does”, but that’s ok because “I won’t sleep alone/Cause my old pal Patrón/Is taking me home tonight”.

A tad more sober, over what feels like The Band playing an early evening honky tonk, Pretty Bitchin’ shows Lambert has the truck, good luck and good wine, and feels pretty pleased with it all. Though not half as pleased as she is with herself. “I’m pretty from the back/Kinda pretty in the face/I hate to admit it/But it didn’t stop me, did it? … it’s pretty bitchin’.”

So that’s some boxes ticked, but with a twist that might fool the bros into listening but not make us feel like we’ve been dumbed. Maybe they’re the kind of moves which allows a song like the mid-80s Manchester pop (think jangle and grey sky dancing bassline) of Track Record, and the busy southern bar-meets-girls night out country of It All Comes Out In The Wash to throw some curve balls without sounding like odd experiments.

It’s interesting to note that both of those songs were co-written by Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose. The same quartet behind the catalogue of smart-mouthed observations in the casually swaggering Way Too Pretty For Prison (where Lambert is joined by Maren Morris). That’s not a coincidence.

Not that messaging is the point here, even in the Muscle Shoals gospel-soul Holy Water.

Whether chuggling along in Settling Down, which is halfway between Memphis and Nashville, holding court in the fading light during the wistful ballad How Dare You Love, swinging up into ‘70s pop rock for Mess With My Head, or punching out some attitude in White Trash, which brings some Texas highway rock to the game, Lambert just makes these feel pretty natural.

By natural, I mean that they sound unforced and easy to take in and from as much as by her, not some generalised type. So, yes, both kinds of country.

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