Kacey Musgraves released one of the two or three most important country albums of the decade back in 2013. The LP—her breakthrough, Same Trailer, Different Park—tossed a whole slew of country conventions in the garbage disposal with an “I don’t give a fuck” smile. Musgraves sounded sarcastic, but not disrespectful. Jaded, but not overly cynical. Instead of praising hometowns like most of her contemporaries, she painted them as havens for close-minded, philandering burnouts. Instead of steering well-clear of anything resembling a progressive political message, she sang about kissing lots of boys…or kissing lots of girls, if that’s what you’re into. Compared to the bro country wave that was on a cruise at the time, Musgraves was a breath of fresh air.
In the years since, a lot more artists like Kacey have come out of the woodwork—to the point where there’s no longer even a point in painting an “us vs. them” battle between the country mainstream and the “insurgency.” These days, most of the biggest “insurgent” heroes are shifting a boatload of records, scoring Grammy nominations, and selling out major headlining tours. It shouldn’t be understated how instrumental Musgraves was in creating an environment where that kind of harmonious balance could happen.
Now, Musgraves is ready to charm the entire world the way she charmed the country genre. With a coveted opening slot lined up for the upcoming Harry Styles world tour, Musgraves is right on time to unleash her poppiest and most refined set of songs yet. The record in question, called Golden Hour, sheds much of the barbed wit that made Same Trailer and its follow-up—2015’s Pageant Material—such unique country releases. Musgraves hasn’t lost her singular voice as a songwriter, though, nor her innate ability to craft stunning melodies. Here, she’s just using those gifts toward a different end: capturing the wonderment of falling in love.
The first two Kacey Musgraves albums were largely devoid of love songs—at least in the traditional sense. The closest Same Trailer came was with a song about a friends-with-benefits arrangement, where Kacey sang “Maybe I love you/Or maybe I’m just kind of bored.” Golden Hour couldn’t be further from that kind of statement. The girl singing these songs is all in, head over heels, totally in love. Sure, there’s still a breakup tune from time to time. “Space Cowboy” is a cosmic beauty about a wandering guy who is incapable of sticking around. For the most part, though, Golden Hour is a record about how finding the right person at the right time can make the world look like an utterly different place.
“Oh what a world, don’t want to leave/All kinds of magic all around us, it’s hard to believe” Musgraves sings on “Oh What a World,” a song about death refracted through the prism of someone who now has something to lose. On “Happy & Sad,” she searches for a word to describe what she’s feeling—a simultaneous crash of euphoria (at falling in love), sadness (at realizing the honeymoon stage never lasts forever), and fear (at the relationship not lasting at all). And on “Love Is a Wild Thing,” she cries “I used to be scared of the wilderness, of the dark/But I’m not anymore, anymore, no,” because she can’t imagine going back to the way things used to be.
Kacey’s portrait of love isn’t all bright stars and brilliant colors. It’s not even all butterflies—though there is a song called “Butterflies.” Instead, Golden Hour is a frequently wrenching set of songs, an album where Musgraves lets the raw, unbridled feeling of her emotions run free. Happiness; sadness; amazement; loneliness; gratefulness; doubt; fear. The tension between these seemingly incongruous emotions makes songs like “Love Is a Wild Thing,” “Lonely Weekend,” and “Happy & Sad” ache in an extremely real, relatable way. Even a song like “Wonder Woman,” which seems like it should be a kitschy send-up of the classic comic book hero, ends up being a candid examination of the imperfections and weaknesses that people bring to their relationships.
Listeners who fell in love with Kacey Musgraves because she was witty and down to earth might not take to Golden Hour right away, if only because it sees her soaring above the clouds at her most earnest. It’s also her least overly country record, which is going to draw some “sell out” jeers from the traditionalists. On every level, though, Golden Hour feels like a new high water mark for Musgraves. It’s melodically richer than either of its predecessors, and more consistently excellent to boot. It doesn’t hurt that the record sounds like magic, thanks to the weightless production work from Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk. Most impressive of all might Kacey’s vocal performance, which keeps the songs feeling intimate even as they meld traditional country elements (like banjos and pedal steel) with decidedly un-country touches (like the vocoders on “Oh What a World” or the thumping disco arrangement of “High Horse”). Kacey has never, ever sounded better. Her voice radiates empathy, wistfulness, and deep human emotion, imbuing these songs with something that makes them feel thoroughly alive. When she sings “Rainbow,” the album’s impossibly gorgeous closing track, it sounds instantly classic. Only time will tell whether the Harry Styles fans step up and make Kacey Musgraves the global superstar she should have been five years ago. Even if that doesn’t happen, though, I think Kacey will be just fine. It’s tough to overlook an album this good.