Even the savviest music-industry observer couldn't have predicted the monster year Miranda Lambert has had.
Embracing the title of her third album, 2009's Revolution, the Lindale native swept through the world of country music like wildfire.
In the last 12 months, Lambert has taken home a Grammy, sold out Billy Bob's Texas twice over, earned adulatory reviews from nearly every corner of the world; married her sweetheart, fellow superstar Blake Shelton; started up a well-received side project, the Pistol Annies; and completed the transformation from talent-contest also-ran to one of music's most formidable talents.
All of which makes Four the Record that much more disappointing; it feels very much like a calculated bid for genuine crossover success.
No one is begrudging Lambert any opportunity to reach more fans, but, at the same time, why abandon what made you popular?
The first five tracks of Four the Record, which was mostly co-written by Lambert, are a saccharine blast of pop, acquiescing to modern Nashville's worst tendencies. There's crushingly obvious metaphor (Fine Tune); glossy, nominally twangy instrumentation (Fastest Girl in Town) and a tired rehashing of territory Lambert's previously covered better (Mama's Broken Heart).
With the arrival of Dear Diamond (one of a handful of genuinely moving relationship-centric cuts here), Lambert settles down and finds her footing, expanding upon Revolution's more carefully calibrated mixture of vulnerability and irresistible melody. In fact, so sturdy is the back half of Four the Record that one begins to wonder if the split was intentional: two halves of the same singer-songwriter, offered up apart because it's so difficult to reconcile them.
Except that Lambert has, frequently, been able to bridge accessibility with powerful songwriting -- look no further than her justly lauded hit The House That Built Me. It's an exquisite snapshot of personal pain, rendered without breast-beating histrionics. Those moments are in short supply here, stoking suspicions of too many cooks in the kitchen, anxious to replicate the platinum-plated success of Revolution.
Lambert's cover of a Brandi Carlile tune ( Same Old You, for which Carlile provides backing vocals) or her take on David Rawlings and Gillian Welch's Look at Miss Ohio suggests she can balance introspection and freewheeling sass without submitting to grating pop pandering.
Indeed, the stirring closer, Oklahoma Sky (penned by Allison Moorer), finds Lambert embracing her new home -- she now lives on a farm with her husband, near Tishomingo, south of Oklahoma City -- and taking a deep breath. Given the flurry of activity in her life over the last year, perhaps a more sober, considered collection of songs was in order.
But on Four the Record, Lambert doesn't seem as though she has reckoned with her new-found position. The salty personality, gifted performer and fiercely skilled songwriter is handcuffed by a schizophrenic album, one that will probably sell millions of copies and catapult her ever further into the stratosphere.
But at what cost?