“Oh what a world,”
sings Kacey Musgraves on Golden Hour, her new record. And in the roughly five years since her breakthrough record Same Trailer, Different Park, her music’s grown into a world all it’s own.
At her best, Musgraves’ music tells stories in the way classic country writers like Billy Joe Shaver used to: on Same Trailer… it was burnt out waitresses, queer teenagers or bored, small-town teenagers without a clear future. Here, she lays out her vision right from the get-go: “I’m going to do it my way, it’ll be alright,” she sings on “Slow Burn.” From there, the music deals with one-sided relationships (“Lonely Weekend”), young love (“Velvet Elvis”) or a partner who’s dealing with anxiety (“Rainbow”).
There’s a nice internal rhyme to “Velvet Elvis,” and she manages to work a reference to a chrysalis into “Butterflies,” but without it seeming forced or trite. But, above all else, she’s continued on the same path she forged on Same Trailer: a distanced observer, someone who’s able to make sense of the world without passing judgment on it. When she’s lonely, she’s just lonely, not heartbroken or anything. When her partner can’t see the rainbow, she’s sympathetic. And when the relationship’s over, she’s able to move on.
Meanwhile, her singing remains distinctive. On “Oh, What A World,” just a touch of reverb giver her voice an otherworldly quality, sounding like something coming out the fog. But on “Mother,” everything is stripped away but she and a piano, and her voice carries little nuances, packing an emotional punch.
All through the record, both her writing and singing are on point. In more ways than one, this isn’t just her strongest record yet, but might be her at a creative peak.
Why’s that? Because it seems like everything coming out of Nashville is pop music, or at least is covered in the same shiny gloss that pumps out of any FM Country station you’d care to name. The formula’s basically been the same for decades. A pedal steel, a fiddle way back in the mix, lots of guitars and swelling strings. Right? As Waylon Jennings once sang: “It’s been the same way for years.”
But the trick to Golden Hour is how Musgraves and producers Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian slyly subvert the formula, making an album that not only sounds fresh on a sonic level but suggests a new way forward. Steel guitars chime in and out of the mix. Backing vocals slur and shift, thanks to a Fitchuk’s use of a vocoder. The swelling strings are augmented with synthesizer chords. When she drops into a pop rhythm for “High Horse,” it teases with dance music. But a steel guitar moves it back into a hazy country vibe.
It’s got as much in common with Beck as it does Jennings.
Maybe the most common angle in the think pieces about Kacey Musgraves and her new record Golden Hour is a ham-fisted comparison between her and the only other woman working in country writers can bother thinking up: Taylor Swift. But neither have a lot in common. Swift is a singles artist, while Musgraves delivers a cohesive, interesting experience through a whole record. I didn’t mention Jennings up above because he also sang in Nashville, either. Musgraves’ material and the way she’s open to new sounds reminds me of him at his best. You could slide “Lonesome, Or’ny and Mean” into “Slow Burn” and nobody would bat an eye. And like the way Jennings ditched the strings and fiddle and leaned into rock rhythms, Musgraves has ditched the trappings of commercial country and made an album that’s unmistakably her.
And here’s the thing: this record is good. Really good, actually. It does all the things you’d want a great country record to do: inspire empathy, arouse emotion and tell stories. It does a few things unexpected: the use of electronic instruments and dance rhythms is inspired. This makes it sound fresh among its peers. And, at the end of “Rainbow,” it’ll have you hitting the toggle switch, cueing the tone arm or CD player back to the beginning. I know it did for me.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.