Best as I can determine, the only significant flaw of Pageant Material, the new album from Kacey Musgraves, is that it seems to inspire a unstoppable fleet of music writer think pieces, the sort of essays that helplessly consider music only in the context of some imagined greater trend. It can’t simply be that her second album for Mercury Nashville is a splendid example of songcraft, warmly and wittily performed. It somehow has to provide entry to commentary of the very nature of modern country music, usually delivered with withering condescension by music writers who’ve probably not listened to more than a half-dozen new country songs in the past year but are all too happy to adopt a purist attitude, certain that Blake Shelton is no Hank Williams.
I match the description of someone with only limited exposure to the broader music genre. I can’t contextualize Pageant Material against the output of Musgraves’s labelmates and marketplace rivals, and I don’t care to. The album doesn’t need a grand evaluative thesis attached to it. Entirely on its own merits, it’s a wise, relaxed marvel, grounding Musgraves in the obligatory culture of southern living (she hails from Texas) while also firmly declaring her independence from the expectations that come with that. Musgraves knows the rules, but that doesn’t mean she cares to play the game, which she addresses directly on “Good Ol’ Boys Club”: “There’s a million ways to dream and that’s just fine/ Oh, but I ain’t losing any sleep at night/ And if I end up goin’ down in flames/ Well, at least I’ll know I did it my way.” That’s the track that’s garnered a flurry of attention, given the perception that it takes a swipe at Taylor Swift, the slender Paulie Cicero of the music business. Musgraves rejected that reading while still remaining a little cagey about it, but the overall point of the song is echoed elsewhere on the record, as on the title track, which acknowledges her distance from the refined southern darlin’ suited for the runway before settling on a confident appreciation for her lack of accompanying artifice when she sings, “Sometimes I talk before I think/ I try to fake it but I can’t/ I’d rather lose for what I am/ Than win for what I ain’t.”
Across the album, Musgraves and her songwriting collaborators (Musgraves has a piece of every song, except a hidden track cover that closes the record) create a marvelous sense of place and purpose, returning to well-worn country song tropes while miraculously avoiding a descent into cliche. “Dime Store Cowgirl,” is a pledge of allegiance to country girl simplicity (“I’m happy with what I got/ Cuz what I got is all I need/ Just cuz it don’t cost a lot, don’t cost a lot/ Don’t mean it’s cheap”), and “This Town” breaks down the inevitable tack of gossip in a small community (“This town’s too small to be mean”). Then there’s lead single “Biscuits,” which just might be the best track of the year, managing to slyly encompass just about every message Musgraves deploys across the album, with a killer hook and brightly playful lyrics (“Takin’ down your neighbor/ Won’t take you any higher/ I burned my own damn finger/ Pokin’ someone else’s fire”). And it’s all packed into just over three brisk minutes.
The pleasures on the album keep unfolding, such as the tender “Somebody to Love” (“We’re all livin’ til we’re dyin’/ We ain’t cool, but man we’re tryin'”) or album opener “High Time,” which is about as plaintive and elegant as a song can get when it’s (likely) about getting stoned. There’s barely a misstep to be found. I doubt Musgraves intends what’s here to be some big statement, beyond a clear expression of herself. Pageant Material needs have no greater intellectual heft or voluminous subtext. It can stand as one of the most important albums of the year simply because it’s one of the best albums of the year. Think on that.