When Miranda Lambert unveiled the first single from her next album, the stark a cappella opening practically begged the listener to lean into the speaker. In essence, Lambert was launching the album with a statement: Listen closely, ’cause I’m about to get really personal.
“It’s just basically writing a journal and putting it on a record and allowing the world to see it,” says Lambert. “I felt like the first song needed to show people that that’s what we’re doing.”
It was, by all accounts, a brave decision. Lambert co-wrote “Vice” in July 2015, the same month that her five-year marriage to Blake Shelton ended in divorce. Lambert and co-writers Shane McAnally (“Noise,” “T-Shirt”) and Josh Osborne (“Sangria,” “Wild Child”) mixed drinks that day in Nashville, then started mining her emotional story for what became an exercise in exploring her own imperfections.
“Everybody else knew what was going on in my life anyway, so I wasn’t really hiding anything,” reflects Lambert. “We just started writing it, and I think when one person in a co-write is just willing to be honest and lay it out there, it sort of opens the door for everybody, and Shane and Josh sort of made it their story as well. So it’s sort of like little parts of all of us.”
“It’s based on a true story, but it’s not, in its detail, autobiographical,” adds McAnally. “It’s not spelling out necessarily what she did. It’s just saying people get over things in different ways, and she was clearly getting over something.”
It began with the same sort of cure for heartbreak that Eric Church cited in “Record Year”: music. Lambert had her mind on indie artist John Moreland as they fashioned the opening line — “Sting of the needle dropping on a vinyl” — but it could have been any number of acts that helped her unpack her emotional baggage.
“People have those records that take them to a place,” she explains. “Sometimes you’re just in the mood to hurt, because it makes you not feel alone.”
Using “sting” and “needle” in that opening phrase suggests that the topic is addiction. But it’s really escape. They added alcohol, travel and casual sex to the list of elixirs that one might use to mask internal pain.
“If you look at the definition of vice, it’s got a negative connotation, but it’s also pretty broad,” reasons Lambert. “I describe it as something you run to when you’re running from something else, sort of a remedy for the moment to get past whatever’s going on.”
They didn’t know what the title would be until they inserted “vice” into the first line of the chorus, which added another layer of emotion. The verses were laden with fragility, but the chorus uses a descending chord structure, passing through some minor chords and darkening the mood of “Vice,” which is cast in a major key. “A lot of times, any sort of walk down adds tension to a song, and I think that’s what’s coming across as minor-y in that chorus,” says Osborne.
The tension reaches its apex in the final verse as Lambert finds herself “standing at the sink not looking at the mirror.” The image ties cleverly to “Bathroom Sink,” a track from her previous album, Platinum. More importantly, it makes a huge statement about the song’s protagonist — the opportunity for self-reflection is right in front of her, and she’s doing her best to avoid it.
“Mirrors can be your friend and tell you the honest truth,” she explains. “Or they can be your biggest enemy.”
At the day’s conclusion, Osborne played guitar as Lambert committed a vocal to her cellphone. It was, he concedes, a “nerve-racking experience.”
“I’m trying to not mess it up as we play it, and I’m kind of singing harmony with her, [which is] always kind of intimidating,” he says. “We just wrote the song, we didn’t know it that well yet, and she might get one great pass at it to where we get it perfect, and if I screw the guitar up we could wreck that. Honestly, the fact that she’s Miranda Lambert makes me think, ‘OK, I can’t screw this up.’ ”
Recording the master of “Vice” — in fact, recording just about everything on the album — was difficult. The song wrapped up a host of emotions, and because they were all specific to Lambert’s personal journey, they had to be represented with the right mix of sounds. Producer Frank Liddell (David Nail, Lee Ann Womack) co-produced with bass player Glenn Worf (George Strait, Alan Jackson) and engineer Eric Masse (Charlie Worsham, Dierks Bentley), whose East Nashville studio, The Casino, provided a comfortable, homey environment.
“It was a very small band, five people in the room,” says Liddell. “There was a lot of discussion about what this thing is: ‘Let’s find Miranda in this song.’ ”
Lambert inadvertently provided the answer. As she sang the opening line on her own, Liddell recognized it needed to start with her alone, sonically naked, revealing her truth. From there it became a matter of framing her with the right textures to emphasize the imperfections in the storyline. “I didn’t want it to be too pretty or too ‘done,’ ” she says.
Most, if not all, of her final vocal was captured alongside the band in the tracking session. Guitarist Luke Reynolds later added some agonizing guitar tones, including a buzzy effect that some observers have compared to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” Reynolds also incorporated a subtly disturbed guitar solo in overdubs, and singer-songwriter Madi Diaz came up with some ghostly background vocals that Lambert enhanced with her own stacks of harmony.
“This song sounds so heavy; it sounds so dark,” says McAnally admiringly. “It sounds somewhat cryptic, but the truth is it’s a great therapeutic release.”
It was Lambert’s idea to envelop her voice in the opening with the sound of a scratchy stereo needle, accomplished with something from Masse’s personal collection: a Beatles album, guesses Lambert. The potential chain of events amused Liddell. “I was thinking, ‘If we do this, then we make a vinyl record, is there going to be a vinyl noise playing on a vinyl?’ ” he muses.
Lambert went back and forth between potential first singles, and Liddell wasn’t much help. “I didn’t know if we had 20 singles or zero,” he admits.
But Lambert’s manager, Shopkeeper owner Marion Kraft, lobbied for “Vice” throughout the process. RCA shipped it to country radio via Play MPE on July 18, and the fan response in streaming and downloads — combined with its immediate airplay — made the song rocket to No. 2 on Hot Country Songs in its second week. It’s currently at No. 11.
Lambert performed it publicly for the first time on July 28 in Cleveland, her expressions revealing on the video screen the risk she was feeling as she got firsthand reaction to a song that she knew would create enormous amounts of speculation. A casual Internet search shows that public guesswork has indeed taken place, as listeners debate what activities created Lambert’s emotions and just when they occurred.
In the end, Lambert is convinced that if people can listen to “Vice” the same way she experiences a Moreland record, they’ll find the humanity in it and get their own sense of comfort, which is the ultimate goal of art.
“I want people to listen to it with an open mind and not overanalyze it,” says Lambert. “If you listen to it as if it’s your own story, it changes the picture.”