Hi. This is a monthly column where I'll be writing about something I've been unhealthily obsessed with. It is basically a written accompaniment to this meme. But with more music. Thanks.
On Christmas eve in 2012 – a few months before she licked a sledgehammer etc in “Wrecking Ball” – Miley Cyrus released a video of her performing “Jolene” in her backyard. It was the last video in a series of three in which she played some of her favourite tracks, stripped back and with an acoustic band. “Jolene” is easily the best one, though. Her vocals are rich and effortless, full of country twangs and depth and nuance. She sings as if she’s not only been raised on the sound of the song, but its meaning too.
Two years beforehand, when she was 18, she performed the track with Dolly Parton herself in Tennessee. Parton is her Godmother, and the pair have fostered a special friendship since Miley was born. The duet is lovely and easy, their close harmonies blending together like fresh swirls of butter. Nearly a decade later, they linked up again for Younger Now album cut “Rainbowland,” although you’d be forgiven for letting that one pass you by. “I think this could work well, don't you?” Dolly is heard telling Miley over voicemail on the track, her voice unsure. “If not, like I said, I'll write that love song for you…"
The reason I mention all this, is because over the years, Miley has shown us glimpses of what she’s capable of. She can sing, we know that, and she can bring the feels, we know that too – but she doesn’t always wholly deliver. Until last week, that is, when she showed up in a Mark Ronson song called “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” (below).
Everything about this song just… it works. “This world can hurt you / It cuts you deep and leaves a scar,” she begins, her honied voice gliding over disco strings, her words equal parts wise and vulnerable and melancholy, like all good pop-country lyrics should be: “Things fall apart, but nothing breaks like a heart / Nothing breaks like heart...” And then the baseline drives through, the electric blue beat slowly unfurls, and all of a sudden you’re tapping your foot along to something that could be “Jolene”, but isn’t. By the time it reaches the chorus, she’s harmonising with herself, and you’re left unsure whether to cry to start square-dancing.
The pure feeling/authenticity that permeates “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” is something listeners have wanted for ages, although it’s obviously been a strange, often uncomfortable journey to get here. Remember when she utilised the talents of producer Mike WiLL Made-It, twerking whenever humanly possible before making clumsy and offensive comments about black culture? Or when she recorded 23 half-baked stoner jams with Wayne Coyne? Or when she finally did release that pop-country album, Younger Now, except it was so wrapped up in questionable branding about "purity" that it felt jarring? And though songs like “Miss You So Much” were nearly good, they also sounded a bit like powdered mash next to an album like Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, or indeed Parton herself.
But Mark Ronson has a history of pinpointing an artist’s strong points and zeroing in on them – often in unexpected ways – and maybe that's what's happened here. There was Amy Winehouse’s famous “Valerie” cover (although her strengths never needed to be coaxed out, tbf, she could summon them in her sleep). There was “Uptown Funk” with Bruno Mars, which was admittedly a horrible song but clearly enjoyed by many. There was all the stuff he did with Lady Gaga, including Joanne and most recently “Shallow”. So the fact his pairing with Miley works so well is hardly a surprise. She's offered up her brilliant, emotional tones, delivered in that Tennesse twang, and he's given them a rich, sorrowful piece of country-licked production to sit upon.
“Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” will appear on an upcoming Mark Ronson album full of 'Sad Bangers' alongside Lykki Li, King Princess, Yebba and many others. Apparently it was influenced by his recent divorce, which is great for people who found his formerly upbeat, hand-claps-and-trumpets mood absolutely unbearable, and also great for those among us who know that sad music is the best music of all.
More interestingly though, this is the best thing Miley has come up with in years – maybe ever (“Party in the U.S.A.” aside ofc). In this collab, she gives off the distinct impression that she's a woman who has just shot her no good rotten husband, and now she's fleeing through the night, from motel room to motel room, with nothing but a sparkly silver dress and a glint in her eye. It's a very specific vibe, I know, but I'd like to see more of this in 2019. Much, much more of this.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.