Kacey Musgraves has always had a spotlight shone on defying the immaculate—and arguably unfair and double standard-laden—expectations of country music fans to pursue a specific idea. Following the wildly popular releases of down-home roots albums Same Trailer Different Park and Pageant Material, though, Musgraves is turning a new leaf with her latest that has the power to surprise even her most avid fans. Although, it’s anything but vapid, bringing a more deeply realized, richly-developed musical and thematic vision to the forefront.
Many of us first fell in love with Musgraves for her cynical, all-too-real critiques on the world around us, delivered with a spoonful of sass for good measure. The irreverent sway she brought to “Follow Your Arrow” while highlighting so much of what makes society ignorant is debatably still a revelation for country music today. From there, she just kind-of became a human whirlwind churning out songs with a similarly delectable view of the world. Notably, for this writer, she highlighted the music biz’s perpetuation of crude sexism and male entitlement with “Good Ol’ Boy’s Club” along the way.
Many of us, then, will be surprised when we first spin Musgrave’s Golden Hour. The deftly layered soundscapes that pervade much of these proceedings are meant to bring us awe, but for the dedicated fan, what might leave us dazed for a hot minute is that the central theme of Golden Hour seems to be embracing happiness. For an artist who’s made her hits so far mostly by cutting her teeth on a mix of old-school country influences married to a realist’s skeptic view of the world, the genuine feeling of elation that Musgraves exudes throughout much of the album is an unexpected turn.
This isn’t a saccharine happiness, however. Paying deeper attention to the album’s lyrical turns, the same deftly in-tune Musgraves is still there to wax the cerebral. It’s just that she’s invoking a lot more of her personal story into proceedings, too, and what we’re seeing is an empowered artist at a point of peak positivity in her life upon the time of Golden Hour’s recording. She did, after all, just recently got married to fellow artist Ruston Kelly.
This also isn’t to say that the album isn’t devoid of acknowledging heartbreak or world issues. It’s more-so that the way in which Musgraves tackles these issues on the album in a decidedly different way than past releases. The catharsis that pulsates through the heart of Golden Hour comes from Musgraves making empowered steps forward to embrace her individuality in the face of personal struggles, all-the-more presently than in her previous hits. It becomes evident upon repeated listens that Golden Hour is the same idea with a different script—one wherein Musgraves’ most powerful message to relay to her audience is one of self-assurance alongside those heavy dosages of individuality.
As mentioned earlier, Golden Hour is a great musical step forward in several unexpected directions for Musgraves. Wherein previous releases were washed with rootsy, honest-to-goodness country stylings, Golden Hour rushes layers of strings, talking synthesizers, and an overall ebullient level of production and composition that will absolutely come across as a surprise to listeners when they first dive into it. But, much like with the themes present on this album that we have discussed, these drastic changes in musical development are indicative of a newly-branded Kacey Musgraves.
Having gone through the ringer with the lessons she’s learned and relayed to us with her first two albums, it’s brilliantly revitalizing to see her so refreshed as an individual to be bringing her most poignant lesson to the table yet. It’s an addendum for a singer-songwriter who’s always preached the gospel of being yourself. Now, she’s saying more than ever to be yourself and to own it, because embracing your own individuality is the greatest weapon you could ever have in a world designed to dog us. With her grand, beautiful shift in musical stylings, the greatly-expanded production of Golden Hour only serves to better ferry across that ever-poignant point of being yourself. Other than that? It’s just damn good.
She’s not trading in country music wholly for the world of electropop here, but Golden Hour in its finest moments comes between that marriage of thematic wholeness and pure artistic innovation. It comes out in pristine spades, too. This is especially so on songs like “Velvet Elvis” or “High Horse” that ride the line between traditional country ebullience and indie pop dreamland, located sonically somewhere between Natalie Hemby and Blaise Plant in a way that—uncannily enough—works. Very rarely do any of these songs get old upon a repeat listen, although as music goes, there will be tracks you enjoy more than others or have to be in the mood for a good listen—the soaring, spacey, and weed-fueled “Oh, What a World” or the more typically lyricized “Space Cowboy”, perhaps.
Otherwise, the genius of Musgrave’s music always comes down to her delivery, wherein the only box she fits into is the one that she fashions herself. She’ll never be an edgeless country sweetheart, gritty outlaw, or warmhearted mama bear like so many others in the country landscape. To this degree, her evolution both stylistically and emotively on this album should’ve been nearly forgone. At the end of the day, Kacey Musgraves is exactly what she does best—and that’s Kacey Musgraves. We’re all the better for it.