When I interviewed Missy Lancaster last year it was clear she was a young artist focused on her craft and passionate about music. While her past had been difficult, she was looking ahead to the release of her album. Now Piece of Me is out and it’s clear why she was excited – the ten songs on this album balance light and dark, and deliver very satisfying, memorable country pop.
Lancaster is great at the uptempo, upbeat songs but it’s on the more melancholic tracks that her emotional and vocal ranges shine. In some hands the poignant and wistful ‘When I Grow Up’ might sound turgid, as with a different interpretation the lyrics could turn into a complaint. In Lancaster’s hands the song is occasionally mournful and not in the way of a newly grown-up adult lamenting that life isn’t turning out as she’d been promised. There is pain here – the pain of leaving behind what is safe even if it’s not wonderful, and fear of what is unknown even if it could be great. It’s the most irresistible song on the album, closely followed by the first single, ‘Forget’, which is a song about lost love which also has nuances in tone that give the lyrics a different weight. Another standout track, ‘Never in Love’, is heavy with resignation and regret, but not blame.
Pop music has, of course, always contained more than catchiness – those of us (still) devoted to ABBA will argue forever about how meaningful their songs are, although if pressed as to why we’d have to admit that the meaning has more to do with how the songs are sung than the lyrics. By virtue of sitting within country music, country pop is probably expected to deliver more to its audience than straight-up pop music. It should have stories, for one thing, even if stories aren’t pop music’s stock in trade as much as feelings are. In Lancaster’s case the stories are in her voice. She doesn’t push out feeling so that the audience can recognise that there’s something going on. The feeling is genuine, and she not only gives into it but has mastered it. On one level of listening, Piece of Me is doing its pop music job – perhaps forgettable, as a lot of pop music can be, but that’s okay because its job is to entertain. On another level, though, it’s clear Lancaster is already a sophisticated singer and artist who can get inside a song and ascertain exactly what it needs to both entertain and mean something to its audience – and that, in sum, is probably the definition of what country pop should be.
Piece of Me is out now through Sony Music.