Album Review: Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Golden Hour’ Is a Fun, Reflective Step Forward
Grady Smith is a country music writer who has written for Entertainment Weekly, the Guardian and Rolling Stone. He can be found on Twitter at @gradywsmith or on his YouTube channel.
Kacey Musgraves is a lot of things to a lot of people. To some, she's a staunch country traditionalist who is rebelling against the pop leanings of "bro country." To others, she's a rare goddess of liberal values in Nashville — outspoken in her support for the gay community and marijuana use. To many listeners, she's an artist that would be more interesting if she weren't limited by kitschy wordplay and playful presentation.
It's not shocking, then, that Musgraves has become a go-to example in thinkpieces about music, politics and feminism. She is a fascinating anomaly: a successful female country artist who's been festooned with attention and awards, despite little support from country radio. Everyone has their theories about how that's happened, and they want to share them.
But almost every take I read about Musgraves seems to value her sharper edges and sassier interview moments over her consistently kind lyrics or the well-rounded nature of her musical output. Such perspectives feel reductive. In truth, Musgraves has always been more of a bridge-builder than a divider, more of a musical explorer than a genre defender, more of a "Follow Your Arrow" libertarian than an activist, more of a lyrical philosopher than a preacher. This is all abundantly evident on her fourth LP, Golden Hour (March 30), which is her fourth stunner in a row — and one that fans of all stripes should enjoy.
Golden Hour is an album that emanates mellow contentedness. Musgraves got hitched to singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly last October, and this collection feels like a warm reflection on her new union: there's a self-assured rootedness and an otherworldly bliss that dance sweetly throughout these songs.
"Cloud nine was always out of reach / Now, I remember what it feels like to fly," she sings on "Butterflies," a breezy love song that offers the album's first taste of "galactic country" with light vocoder effects that sparkle behind words like "chrysalis." That effect is used more prominently on the next song, "Oh What a World," a trippy appreciation of nature and love that sounds like a dream Dolly Parton might have had in the 1960s.
If there were touches of Texas swing and even Hawaiian hula on Pageant Material (and the underrated A Very Kacey Christmas), Golden Hour takes more inspiration from Europop, most notably on the disco-tinged "High Horse." "Why don't you giddy-up, giddy-up / And ride straight out of this town?" she asks a pompous downer in the chorus. The song provides an example of Musgraves' trademark sass, sure, but it's tempered by the fun, propulsive dance beat.
That sense of balance is prominent on this record. In moments where Musgraves' lyrics go melancholy, she counters them with measured optimism. On "Mother" — a song she claims to have written while on an LSD trip — she cries as she recognizes herself in her own mom. On "Happy and Sad," she feels happy and (you guessed it) sad at the same time. On "Space Cowboy," a breakup ballad for the ages, she lets go of an ex-lover not with vindictiveness, but with liberating freedom. "When a horse wants to run, there ain't no sense in closing the gate," she says. "So you can have your space cowboy." (Musgraves split from ex-bandmate Misa Arriaga before Kelly was in the picture.) There's a patience and maturity to the writing here, though I imagine some may find the album's relative calmness a bit sleepy on a couple tracks, most notably "Lonely Weekend."
Even with its sonic explorations, Golden Hour feels very much like a natural step in Kacey Musgraves' canon. Its sound is still driven by simple acoustic guitar strums, and it still features banjo and pedal steel, the latter of which is used to provide much of the album's prismatic, shimmery ambiance. And like all of her releases, the lyrics are still center-stage, delivered with the confidence and lightness that Musgraves' clear voice has always provided. Nowhere is this more evident than on the album's lovely closer, "Rainbow," which is perhaps the simplest track she has ever released. Over basic piano chords, Musgraves tries to coax a friend out of a glum and stormy mindset: "Let go of your umbrella / 'Cuz, darling, I'm just trying to tell ya / That you've always had a rainbow hanging over your head." It's a lyric that so gentle, so kind, so simple, and so universal that it’s destined to become a classic, much like Golden Hour as a whole.
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