Too Racy For The Small Towns It Describes.....
This is consummate Country, depending of course on your notion of what constitutes the genre. Rather than explore that genuinely complex range of possibilities, I’ll make it clear I am referring here to the commercial and polished point on the spectrum, though I’m sure cynics would like to think there is only this singular representation.
Kacey Musgraves’ debut album is definitely polished. Buffed, polished, varnished and lights shone on this to reflect with the brightest intensity and accentuate that sheen. Perhaps the most spit and elbow grease has been put into the lyrics where twee – but effective – rhymes as well as homespun – but effective – aphorisms are sewn together in seamless narratives of ordinary life. These Country homilies provide reassurance by repeating so neatly what we all know and share. It’s just that this lyrical polish makes it more palatable; more liveable.
I’m sounding much more critical than I mean to be. At the risk of appearing/being arrogant, what I mean is that these lyrics make me smile – a knowing smile – because I understand the game that’s being played, but I am not annoyed at the attempt to philosophise so simplistically. Perhaps I’m just in a good mood. Let’s look at some examples. From opener Silver Lining, we have Woke up on the wrong side of rock bottom which is a clever little line, suggesting things are very bad, really, but it is such a clever-sounding iambic pentameter that the implication is lessened by that neatness. And anyway, there is a way to improve on this, but it isn’t easy, just a little inconvenient: If you wanna fill your bottle up with lightning/You’re gonna have to stand in the rain. I know ‘lightning’ doesn’t sound like a positive thing necessarily, but I think it’s about power and strength and so on, the human attributes one needs to deal with day-to-day struggles. You know: recession, unemployment, poverty, d-i-v-o-r-c-e and so on. You have to grasp the nettle, so to speak, or If you wanna find the honey/You can’t be scared of the bees or ‘Cause if you’re ever gonna find/A four leaf clover/You gotta get a little dirt on your hands.
Then there’s the single release Merry Go ‘Round which I think contains quite a bit of that neat cleverness and yet does grapple with aspects of everyday life that is culturally accurate and apt. It’s a song that deals with High School love, but more poignantly, with the insular and potentially demeaning reality of that familiar love/life scenario, and one that Springsteen and other American songwriters address in their varying ways [I’m not putting Musgraves' on a par, just referencing a preoccupation]. Here’s the third verse,
Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay.
Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane.
Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down. [There’s the clever-clogs line]
Mary, Mary quite contrary.
We get bored, so we get married
Just like dust, we settle in this town.
On this broken merry go ‘round and ‘round we go
Where it stops nobody knows and it ain’t slowin’ down.
This merry go ‘round.
The ‘merry go ‘round’ metaphor is hardly original, and the ‘Mary, Mary quite contrary’ line is risky in its apparent obsolescence, but those next two lines are simple yet powerful enough, and I think this works in the context of being a Country song. The closing verse is potentially back to clever-clogs territory, but the nursery rhyme reprise can also suggest effective crafting,
Jack and Jill went up the hill.
Jack burned out on booze and pills.
And Mary had a little lamb.
Mary just don’t give a damn no more.
The playfulness is also an important feature of the lyrics to the songs on this album. A song like Follow Your Arrow [the metaphor piercing your metaphor radar before it’s been shot from the bow.....] exemplifies this. Whilst it tackles ostensibly ‘serious’ subjects like marriage [and the worst/best clever-clogs line If you don’t save yourself for marriage/You’re a whore-able person] obesity, drugs, homosexuality, religion and so on, the chorus is the bathetic joke to all of its earnest presentation of life’s paradoxes,
Make lots of noise
And kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls
If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points, yeah
Follow your arrow
Wherever it points
Yeah, I know, it’s not that rousing out of the context of the whole, but that’s also the point. To add to the relative complexity, there are headlines that ask if this song is ‘too racy’ for Country Radio!
The music? It’s OK. To be honest, the songs are pleasant enough, but nothing distinctive. It’s all in the storytelling. And – for those who followed my brief Nashville blogging [which I have stopped watching] – this album would fit into that programme, it’s soap opera and it’s polished presentation of Country music. And – again and – I really have no idea if I’m promoting or criticising! But it’s been a journey.