I can’t claim to understand the vagaries of what drives country music radio, but the apparent middling affection for Kacey Musgraves is perplexing to the point of aggravation. Despite the Texas native’s place in the Universal Music Group Nashville stable of artists (she’s released three albums on Mercury Nashville and one on MCA Nashville), she’s only graced the Top 10 of the Billboard country charts with one single, and even that was a glancing blow. In the meantime, if Carrie Underwood recorded herself struggling with the sniffles for three minutes, it would hit the top spot.
Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that Golden Hour, the new album from Musgraves, demonstrates a cheery disregard for adhering to any twang-tanged formula. And it sounds free and deeply content because of it. Part of that warm, sweet comfort is surely a product of Musgraves writing and recorded while in the throes of newlywed bliss, a circumstance she readily acknowledges contributed to the feel and outlook of the finished product. She’s still recognizably the same rambunctious songwriter who employed the country music vernacular while simultaneously tweaking its tropes to suit her own preferences: mellow pot-smoking instead of barroom sorrow-drowning, woke inclusivity rather than myopic heartland first antagonism. Now, though, Musgraves is less impish and more earnest, fully prepared to be who she is with a take-it-or-leave-it confidence.
According to the songs found within the album’s grooves, she’s a shrewd, quietly inventive lyricist with a gift for tender melodies and an ability to express emotion without pushing into melodrama. Appropriately, album opener “Slow Burn” is a fine declaration of this identity: “Taking my time, let the world turn/ I’m gonna do it my way, it’ll be all right/ If we burn it down and it takes all night/ It’s a slow burn, yeah.” Spare and lush at the same time, the track sounds like the kind of ethereal alternative folk gem Victoria Williams would have crafted in her nineteen-nineties heyday. In general, Musgraves strikes a certain tone that’s reminiscent of other artists from around the same era, when there was a welcome pushback against grunge excess with decidedly adult and sedate pop. “Lonely Weekend” calls to mind the earlier solo efforts by Natalie Merchant, and “Happy & Sad” veers close to Aimee Mann territory, in both sound and conflicted outlook (“It’s never felt so right/ And I’m the kinda person/ Who starts getting kinda nervous/ When I’m having the time of my life”).
The prevailing sound of the album is mid-tempo ease, but there a little tinsel tosses of idiosyncratic flair. The first distinct elbowing of the boundary occurs on “Oh, What a World,” which employs some synthesized vocals. Later, “High Horse” offers the sharpest turn into pop, shimmying with a modernized disco sound that wouldn’t be all that out of place on a Cut Copy or Carly Rae Jepsen album. As if playfully arching an eyebrow at the sonic distance she’s moved from her label’s signature sound, Musgraves name-drops John Wayne in the very first line.
As with her previous effort (non-holiday division), the masterful Pageant Material, Musgraves delivers nothing but gems. And she can tell full stories with an artful turn of phrase or two, as on “Space Cowboy”: “Sayin’ I don’t know/ Would be like saying that the sky ain’t blue/ And boots weren’t made for sitting by the door/ Since you don’t wanna stay anymore.” In both her skill and her mild struggle to meet the favor of the country music tastemakers, Musgraves is a direct descendent of Lyle Lovett. Nashville power brokers didn’t quite know what to make of that big-haired Texan, either. Like Lovett, Musgraves’s place in the popular imagination is ultimately beside the point. If she keeps making albums this wonderful, enough will notice, and every song will feel like private treasure.