Not much like our most recent female-sung country song of the same title…
Anthony Easton: This is being sold as a legitimate singer-songwriter, and not one of those pop country artists, especially by the Jody Rosen piece in Slate. So, you know, one doesn’t want to review Jody Rosen. It’s a good song, with a good message, and one or two great lines — but good songs with great messages have been played out since Charlie Rich in 1969, and the reason that was so effective was slickness combating with the earnestness. This is weirdly not slick enough, and I don’t believe what Musgrave is selling. I suspect that a dozen other singer-songwriters could sing this better, but saying that is almost as bad as reviewing Rosen.
Jonathan Bogart: Smartly observational country-pop that isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is (small-town slash suburban ennui is enervating WHY I NEVER), a point which is inadvertently made by the video’s Super 8 footage of ironically idyllic postwar suburbia — this stuff was old hat in 1992, and Kacey Musgraves shouldn’t need to still be fighting Loretta Lynn’s and Jeannie C. Riley’s battles. But she gets in a few good lines, and if there’s not ideological space for anti-country country music, the world is poorer for it.
Edward Okulicz: The message itself — that small towns and smaller communities suffocate — isn’t new. But we listen to hundreds of “yay! love is awesome” songs a year and don’t get tired of the theme, and it’s not what Musgraves sings about, it’s what she sings that demands your attention. It’s a delicate song and she sings it with care, both the numbed narrator and the woman who wants to run away as fast as she can. The details are just so; forget the unimaginative “where it stops nobody knows” and focus on the smart jabs of desperation like “same trailer, different park.” It’s a cliche — the stories of those wise before and after the fact but who made the mistakes anyway — but there is beauty in the execution.
Will Adams: Kacey’s resigned vocals and nursery rhyme allusions capture the heartbreaking narrative of “Merry Go ‘Round” perfectly. The music is telling a different story, though, yearning quietly with its pattering snares and expansive guitar washes. In the end, I’m left wondering whether this small town life is as grim as she’s putting it.
Alfred Soto: “You’re probably goin’ to die alone” is a helluva of a glass of cold water, especially when a voice this bland and a mandolin this faceless plunks along. Another modern example of being unfamous in a small town — what Miranda Lambert and Pistol Annies have each depicted with precision and propulsion. The last is key. While I appreciate Mama being hooked on Mary Kay, harmonies and rhythm might have nailed her plight.
Brad Shoup: Even Lee Hazlewood would have passed on the “Mary” conceit. Sorry, Musgraves, not even a wearyingly repetitive indie-pop piano figure can chase me from the overwritten lyric.
Iain Forrester: “Merry Go ‘Round” is starkly moving. The only sign of songwriting weakness is in the slight clumsiness of the Mary/Merry bits but those are saved and then some by casually throwing in “we get bored so we get married”. Elsewhere her weary resignation comes through every word as she details acceptance of falling into expected paths and the token gestures against it (“we won’t end up like our parents”) made despite their obvious futility It’s like the whole thing makes her want to scream but she can’t because she’s had all of the energy sucked out of her, with the music remaining too prim to ever give full voice to the sadness that’s obviously there. It’s the sound of settling and it’s terrifying.
Patrick St. Michel: What happens when you drain the fiery passion from a teenager in a Taylor Swift song, deny them their fairy-tale ending and trap them in the small town they grew up in? This practically-sighed bit of ennui from Kacey Musgraves. “We think the first time is good enough/so we hold on to high-school love/say we won’t end up like our parents” Musgraves sings, only for the people in her song to end up stifled by where they live and seek out escape from the boredom that brings. It’s depressing but in a sneaky way, hope for something, anything, else sinking into the background as one simply settles. The only moments of overt sadness come when Musgraves breaks into nursery rhymes, which stand in for youth and all the possibilities childhood promises. She turns them downtrodden, though, ending the song with the bleak “Jack and Jill went up the hill/Jack burned out on booze and pills/Mary had a little lamb/Mary just don’t give a damn no more.” Musgraves captures the mundanity adulthood can bring beautifully here.
Katherine St Asaph: I will probably be ritually lacerated for saying this, but this is my anti-”22″. See, I grew up with teenage girls in the South, Taylor Swift’s first and core demographic. The cool girls, at this point, would relate to Taylor if they didn’t already (they did; citation, every third Facebook status from 2006-2009). She’s that far gone pop and monoculture. I wasn’t cool, never did and still don’t, but five years ago I imagine I’d have preferred this mousier song. Can’t decide whether it sounds more like country or Lisa Loeb, and the story’s old and preachy — but deceptively so; it’s a very specific sort of preachiness, the kind you get from a sullen kid who just read about Malvina Reynolds while flipping bored through her history textbook alone after school with the Mary Kay boxes, who’s giving off all sorts of subtext that she’s the one who doesn’t believe, who doesn’t get to be hooked on anything and who probably won’t get to be married by 21, let alone leave town. Forget clowning the popular kids; she’s slipped off their radar, which you know by how she talks about weed and booze; you only pontificate about high schoolers’ house parties if you’re not going or not invited. “Merry Go Round” is just too unassuming to be cool — but not too much to be beautiful, or to have worth.