Sunday, April 22, 2018

Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves

In theory, an artist like Kacey Musgraves shouldn’t feel quite comfortable in the world of country music. Despite early Grammy wins for her debut album, Same Trailer Different Park, she finds success below the abundant country airwaves, where country fans access their music disproportionately compared to other genres. She is progressive in sound and message – something very much against the grain in the tried-and-true, traditionally conservative genre. It’s something upon which her narrative was dependent... until now, when she trades out lyrical wit for discreet, understated warbles on her third studio record, Golden Hour.

The country female framework favors belters or waverers, neither of which Musgraves identifies with. Her voice is thin and exact, without particularly emotive qualities – much unlike the Underwoods or McEntires of the world. And also unlike the Underwoods and McEntires, Musgraves’ lyrical storytelling isn’t reliant on tragedy or domestic homicide. In fact, while the border that separated pop from country corroded away long ago, Golden Hour is perhaps the most nonchalant (and least country) female country release in recent memory. (Unless, of course, we count that weird, match-made-in-hell collaboration between Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line.)

Country music’s essence is still intact on Golden Hour: Steel guitars and banjos are vital to its sonic footprint, and her lyrics are seasoned with country folk lexicon – cowboys, boots, and Chevrolets. Even the album’s redheaded stepchild, the disco-indebted “High Horse,” isn’t far out of touch with the rest of the record lyrically. But admittedly, her Southern charm sometimes can overpower in the cheesiest way. The melodically flat “Velvet Elvis” is a song-long metaphor that parallels a lover to beloved gaudy Elvis portraits. “Space Cowboy” is almost ridiculous in regard to the number of country staples she shoved into its stanzas, but man, that moment of clarity when the word “cowboy” unravels under a vocoder saves the song from left field.

Perhaps it all works because she bottles small town sentiment at the tap. Born in the desolate Golden, Texas, and raised in a nearby town, Musgraves builds this aesthetic-heavy record with careful attention to being, well, careless. She occupies her record with the little things; Opening track “Slow Burn” is an ode to going nowhere fast in town where piercing your nose outrages grandma. While milling idly, she romanticizes a type of love that is most often ignored in music: A human, imperfect love. Standout track “Wonder Woman” basks in it, while “Love is a Wild Thing” admits the powerful qualities of love between ordinary people. And when she’s not preoccupied with things of the lovey-dovey nature, she manages to write a whole song (and quite a good one, actually) to describe incessant pessimism in the oddest, most layman-friendly way (“Happy and Sad”).

So as strange as it seems, Musgraves is comfortable within country music in practice. Below the folds of the album’s acoustic pop (and sometimes, all-out pop) slipcover, country sensibility remains a familiar cushion for her. Without a strong vocal presence to lead it and occasional potholes in songwriting, Golden Hour is as quaint as the hometown that inspired it, for sure. And it’s the record that allows Musgraves to sidestep out of the country underdog archetype and into the light as an artist who writes her own rules in a genre that hasn't been wholly itself since before she was born, even if her rules are far from polished ones.

Golden Hour is available now under MCA Nashville.

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