Written by Mickey Guyton, Liz Rose, and Stephanie Chapman
“Nice Things” impresses from its opening bars: The single begins with a gently-plucked acoustic guitar figure that, in a rarity for a contemporary country single, isn’t immediately drowned out by layers of EDM loops, screaming electric guitars, or that same pre-programmed drum track that’s been used on three-fourths of the singles released in 2017. When Mickey Guyton begins to sing, that simple guitar lick is her only accompaniment for the entirety of the first verse. Even when the production layers in additional instruments– there’s even a dobro, which feels like a minor miracle– and an unobtrusive percussion line, the arrangement of “Nice Things” gives Guyton and the song’s lyrics ample room to breathe.
That alone would make the single stand out on country radio in a dire year. But what elevates “Nice Things” to a should-be genre classic are its beautifully-turned phrases, Guyton’s thoughtful performance, and a memorable melody.
Guyton earned considerable attention for her vocal prowess on her first single, “Better Than You Left Me,” and she’s certainly one of the strongest singers to make any mainstream inroads in recent memory. Here, her technical skill is on full display. The song’s lilting melody both emphasizes the lyrical hook– “Mama always said you can’t have nice things”– and showcases Guyton’s impressive range. The way she lapses into her upper register halfway through the final verse recalls Trisha Yearwood’s sense of phrasing, and she reflects her narrator’s growing confidence over the course of the song with a sustained, controlled crescendo. It’s a measured and mature performance that few of Guyton’s contemporaries could hope to match.
Her performance also doesn’t pull undue focus from the song itself. Without a proper chorus, Guyton and her co-writers, Liz Rose and Stephanie Chapman, rely on their central conceit to carry the song’s thematic weight. They accomplish this feat by developing fully-realized characters in Guyton’s narrator, who recognizes her own worth and regrets that she hasn’t been treasured, and in her former partner, a man who is fundamentally incapable of treating the things he claims to care about with the kind of attention they deserve. When Guyton sings, “Oh, little boy with all your toys out in the yard / I gave you the moon but you had to have the stars / Took them from the sky and you left them in the dark / ‘Til they rusted right through,” it’s a line laced with equal parts resentment and pity.
Even more impressive is that Guyton uses a literary allusion to deliver her final kiss-off. She asks, “Don’t you know why the caged bird sings? / Like mama always said, you can’t have nice things.” Maya Angelou made the most famous use of the image in her poem “Caged Bird” and in the title of her first autobiography, 1970’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. But Angelou drew her inspiration from the poem “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, which includes the stanza:
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!
With her final question, Guyton acknowledges how she’d been imprisoned by her lover’s neglect, and “Nice Things” is this caged bird’s song. It’s a credit to Guyton, Rose, and Chapman that they remembered that country music, at its finest, can boast of this kind of depth and thoughtfulness as one of its many virtues. “Nice Things” is a beautiful, smart song, and it’s among country’s very finest singles of 2017.