With a song called 700,000 Rednecks and lyrics about “muddy waters” and “viva las vegas,” Nikki Lane truly wears country on her sleeve. At the same time, her mellow voice and moody band sound don’t necessarily pander to the commercial country crowd. Highway Queen comes across as a log of Lane’s young adulthood. First, we get a confident lone wolf, but then, Lane beats herself up for depending on her love interest and by the end she’s heartbroken over the break-up. It’s not entirely a concept album or a break-up album as some of the tracks are a bit off-topic, but Lane delivers earnest, heart-wrenching material between raucous fun, while also placing country within reach of the modern indie rock crowd.
The record opens on dramatic ambience and suddenly Lane comes in and yelps off a “yippie ki yay” that echoes off into the canyon as her methodical guitar lick gets going. There’s a lot of ways that the “yippie ki yay” strategy can go wrong, but right after we’ve jumped into a well-mixed bluesy sound space with Lane’s smoldering vocals surrounded by acoustic and electric guitars, the occasional rip-roaring solo and some distant, vintage backing vocals—the goofiness overstay it’s welcome so to speak.
This tune is a fun start to the record that talks about all the people you got to get through to get to the top, but Highway Queen follows with a bit of a dive into Lane’s psyche. Opening with some soaring slide guitar and pulsing bass, the tune is clearly a travelin’ song and the lyrics speak about a woman who doesn’t stick around for too long and never falls into a dependent relationship with a significant other. This tune is probably about Lane herself to some degree, but—considering the love songs that come later—it also comes across as an ideal that Lane was striving for at one point or another, which sort of becomes a reoccurring songwriting strategy. Lane often talks about topics vicariously through other characters making the record simultaneously dynamic and focused.
On Lay You Down, for instance, Lane takes on the underlying anxieties that the lone wolf experiences by discussing the death of a man around town. We start with him venturing off alone, but his story takes a turn for the worse and Lane paints a depressing portrait of dying alone: “Who’s gonna lay you down tonight?/Put aside the fear and the pain/And hold your hand while you die.” Lane’s voice on this one is particularly striking. The chorus is in that slightly strained high range, so you hear her inner fears dripping out of her. Also, the guitar solo reaches symphonic heights with big tom movements from the drummer and a chorus of Lane’s offering “oohs.”
Next in the story is a fun gambling tune, but Lane also uses it as a metaphor for dating and falling in love. It seems like the thought of dying alone has pushed her to pursue a relationship of some kind and Companion follows with a love song about the honeymoon phase. Companion is a great example of Lane’s sonic prowess. The sonic elements—such as plucked bass, arpeggiating guitar, and classic vocal countermelody—are panned left and right and continuously pile up making for a thick instrumental texture.
The second half of the record goes through depending too heavily on someone and dealing with distance, before delving into the end of a relationship. Muddy Waters offers poetic self-reflection. Lane talks about her own stubbornness and how her significant other may not have meant to harm her, but she can’t pull herself to believe him and she really rips her heart out on the final track: “And anyone could try to say we didn’t keep the vows we made/But they’d be lying/Cause we said ‘til death do us part and it was true/Cause my heart feels like it’s dying.”
Admittedly, there’s some hamfisted lyrical moments on the record. Between those heartbreaking words on Forever Lasts Forever, we hear a bit of excessive bluntness with “Yeah, we swore for better or for worse/And it was better at first, and worse at the end.” Also, Big Mouth is a bit high school for my tastes: “Well, I just heard a dirty secret/Should have known you couldn’t keep it/And now the shit’s done hit the fan.” It’s also hard to say that the record offers groundbreaking artistry. However, Lane avoids autopilot and honors the country tradition with great introspective reflection and telling your own story through the plight of others.