The sweet imperfection of Interstate Gospel
Pistol Annies’ first album was perfect, a rarity in itself. But it may also be the most perfect album of the 2010s.
Hell on Heels clocked in at mere seconds over a half-hour in 2011, a seemingly innocuous lark in which the established grandmaster Miranda Lambert brought her then-unknown friends Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley up to her level and then transcended that, too, with plainspoken tunelets (“I owe 400 quarters to a washing machine” — that plainspoken) of small-town burlesque in which the trio portrays gold-diggers, sets a bad example to “teach all the prim and propers what not to do,” sells a trailer with “some holes and dents where I got tired of his shit” and pine in one knockout chorus for “Boys from the South.” There’s a wedding (in which bride Monroe wears beige) and a funeral (in which Mama’s still warm body doesn’t stave off a tug o’ war over family quilts). They’ll never make an album this astounding, economical, witty, and melodically rich ever again, though Lambert, herself an anomaly more consistent than Dolly herself, might come close; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in 2007 already had.
All three have sterling discographies, with the NPR-ready Monroe showing the most signs of wear (last year’s Sparrow was pretty but, gulp, bland) and underdog Presley the script-flipping wild card (2017’s great Wrangled featured a rapper). Hell on Heels occasioned enough positive word-of-mouth to warrant 2013’s Annie Up, another non-hit as good as anything these women have done without transcending a thing. Behold, professionalism. So there wasn’t much reason to expect 2018’s Interstate Gospel even though the lifelong friends shtick seemed real enough. But why not? Lambert’s ambition led to country’s first-ever(!) double album by a woman with 2016’s The Weight of These Wings, and even that was a hit. At this point it feels apt to compare the Annies to the Wu-Tang Clan in its prime: classic debut of combined forces that thrill both together and solo. They never stop writing because they write what they know and they know a lot. And Lambert is at least as great as Ghostface Killah, with pop-friendly Monroe a formidable Method Man and Presley a far more disciplined ODB.
Interstate Gospel ain’t perfect at all. The seams show on this record because it’s more frazzled; a title like “5 Acres of Turnips” certainly isn’t promising, and at first the music doesn’t snap into place until the singalong “Got My Name Changed Back” halfway through. Usually in witty country you can isolate a truism and admire from there, but “Jesus is the bread of life, without him you’re toast” and “You can’t build a mansion with a piece of sawdust” are too corny this time, even if they’re still so charming they got away with singing the word “whores” on TV.
But once you realize the homilies aren’t the set pieces for once on a major country album, out blooms a hell of a survivor’s manual. The Annies roll their eyes at an assortment of bemused coping skills — Percocet, religious billboards, weed on the opener — even as they partake. “Takin’ Pills” was played for laughs in 2011, but this time you can remove the scare quotes. Lambert’s sang about “Vice” on her great 2016 single, but this whole album’s about vices, and they don’t have the stomach anymore to laugh about it.
There are much harsher consequences in these 14 songs than the debut, whose only elegized death is a natural one among the cartoon man-scamming of “Hell on Heels” or the odd-couple sitcom of “The Hunter’s Wife.” Heels’ most emotionally wracked (and perhaps greatest) song was “Housewife’s Prayer,” a fantasy in which Lambert torches her home. The closest thing to a fantasy on Gospel also belongs to her, and on the outrageous “Milkman,” Lambert twists far deeper than, say, “All Kinds of Kinds.” The song is a hypothetical in which she wishes her mom was a bigger fuckup so she could identify with her more. But it’s also about how she wishes her mom wasn’t a stick in the mud. The song juggles sainthood and sin like little else in a catalog that’s wrestled with both plenty, and she even imagines mama’s hand between the title van-owner’s knees. The “Me and Your Cigarettes” singer wishes Mama smoked them all, because “maybe she wouldn’t judge me.” Few black sheep have dared to paint the others in her flock so they’d match.
By then the tone has already been more than set by another big quotable about Presley enjoying a “recreational percoset,” a phrase with a syllable count I prefer in the follow-up “I’ve got the hankering for intellectual emptiness,” which is later replaced by worthlessness. “Best Years of My Life,” that song’s called, though reading the full title aloud requires punctuation by a drink or a drag.
This is Lambert’s most bummed album by some distance, and probably the others’ too. The men-as-playthings have become men-as-compulsive-accessories, with Monroe breaking the fourth wall on “Stop Drop and Roll One”: “I don’t really care how this phony ass fairytale ends / I just hope that we’re leaving this honky tonk covered in men.” On the same introductory salvo, Lambert is “burned out like the prom queen,” a hell of a simile on heels. Later, wishing to be cold as a beer and pining for a guy hot as July, do they wish to emulate “Cheyenne” the unflappable character sketch or Cheyenne the capital city? It’s both cute and apt when they note on the title track that “even ol’ Moses was a basket case.”
The double-album maker and “Platinum”-blonde purveyor isn’t as concerned about perfection either. Lambert’s “Masterpiece” is perhaps the one song too many, without a metaphor that sticks (“Baby we were just a country song / I’m still doin’ time, the king is gone” — country song, jail, king, huh?) but at least she doesn’t foreground it like 2016’s “Tin Man,” now one of her bigger singles and certainly the worst. “Sugar Daddy” calls back to “Hell on Heels” but certainly doesn’t improve it (though Ashley’s boast that her SD provider has a rhinestone suit and a snake in his boot is a fun upgrade). Hell’s freezing over so to speak. There’s no twist, no shoe-drop, and that makes this album a lot truer to life. The hustlers never hustle their way out of the hole. The misfits remain misfits.
Presley, the furthest Annie from fame-grooming, gets some of the most cutting moments on the record: “Tear in the screen door / Lettin’ the flies in / The radio’s on, the sweetest of songs / But I know they’re lying” on “5 Acres of Turnips.” And she owns all of the devastating, even downright antipathetic “Commissary,” in which either a son or an ex gets beat within an inch of his life in jail and she doesn’t bat an eye. “You’re still just a kid to me” has never sounded less nostalgic.
Gospel is also Lambert’s belated divorce album because she just couldn’t say all the shit she needed to with the audience for The Voice watching. After the lofty bullshit of “Tin Man,” we get “When I Was His Wife” and “Got My Name Changed Back”; I guess “broke his heart and took his money” is kind of a fantasy, after all. It’s just hard to imagine her doing it to someone who doesn’t deserve it, which is why she has to slip into her Annies character guise to be mean. “Well I’ve got me an ex that I adored / But he got along good with a couple road whores” is most certainly not about Gwen Stefani.
Pistol Annies aren’t cynics just because they know church is a hoax and men are garbage. They don’t think things will get better, they just don’t think they’ll lose ways to manage their problems either. Someone else’s definitive statement may be “Well he don’t love me but he ain’t gone yet,” but these ladies just indulge in bad men like sweet tea and whiskey. The real theme song is “This Too Shall Pass,” which could be another billboard: not only do Miranda, Ashley, and Angaleena make each other cry and laugh when they trade genius, “We set each other free.” And that makes this survival album a togetherness album, a sister act. They fetishize the trash life like Aerosmith or Low Cut Connie because they love the local color but they don’t pretend there’s any antidote to loneliness here besides each other. The narrators of Interstate Gospel are so comfortable in their vantage points because they’re holding hands the entire time they observe the deadbeats and disappointments they leave or watch leave in the rear view.