Kacey Musgraves has just released her album “Golden Hour”. It’s her third album, not counting a compilation of Christmas songs in 2016 (let’s not go there). The first was the breakthrough “Same Trailer, Different Park” in 2013. It was an album which, it is said, set her apart from the typical female country singer. More challenging to the norms, more willing to deal with the social issues affecting the USA. It was a portrait of small town America, a documentary of the struggles that people face. It was honest about people’s drug use, for example. I was a bit late to it. My friend Steve recommended it to me. And when I listened, I really liked what she was doing. Not that she was that different to the country singers I do like – Lindi Ortega to the fore. None of them are the supposedly typical mainstream types. I’m not even sure who the mainstream ones are.
My favourite songs on “Same Trailer, Different Park” were “Merry Go-round” and “It Is What It Is”. “Merry Go-round” articulates the pressures people are under to conform to the small town conventions, even as they grapple with love affairs, drug habits, depression. Grim subject matter, set to quite an upbeat tune. “It Is What It Is” is a classic country love song, really: two people who are mixed up, not right for each other, but can’t really do without each other. Sung so beautifully. Definitely one to weep into your Jack Daniels to.
I didn’t ever explore the follow up, “Pageant Material” properly. Truth is, I’m not a massive country fan. The songs and artists I end up liking almost find me, rather than me looking hard for them. A decent review from someone I respect, a chance viewing on Facebook, that sort of thing. But when I like them, I love them!
I recently booked tickets to see Kacey at Wembley Arena this autumn. So I was attuned to the new album, “Golden Hour”. I read some glowing reviews on Facebook and then the Guardian gave it five stars last Friday. Alex Petridis, no less, a great music journalist, and someone whose approval is always worth taking seriously. So I listened to the album on Friday, and then I listened to it again – and again. It is a wonderful album. It’s not really a country album at all. The country influences are there – in the first song “Slow Burn”, for example. It is a consummate pop album. Not in a Taylor Swift style, but in a more subtle way. Alex Petridis describes the songs as effortless, and I think that’s right. Not throwaway – just so right. Beautiful melodies, sometimes wistful, sometimes hard hitting, and other times just celebrating life. This is an album where Kacey has moved from the observations of other lives in “Same Trailer” to something a lot more personal. And some of that is happy. A country artist happy! Now there’s something different.
So “Golden Hour” is an upbeat, joyous album for the most part. Not corny, but feelgood. My favourite songs right now, along with “Slow Burn”, are “Butterflies”, “What a World” and “Golden Hour”. And the best of all is “What a World”. That could be a resigned cry at the way of the world. But it isn’t – it’s a celebrations of the wonders of the world, enhanced by a new love. It starts with a bit of vocoder – that’s definitely a bit Taylor – and then is just anthemic, in the way that Coldplay are anthemic. Except Coldplay wouldn’t introduce a banjo motif to the song. And Chris Martin can’t sing in the way that Kacey Musgraves sings. Just beautiful. This one is going to be awesome live.
“High Horse” is the one song that seems like a blatant attempt to move into the Taylor Swift market, with its dance beat (although the lyrics are still pretty countryish). I’d say it’s more like Kylie Minogue – and that’s not a bad thing in my book. But again, it’s just a good song, really. As is the short paean to her mother, called “Mother”. Incredibly sentimental, but lovely. You can’t knock it.
So throw away your doubts, your cynicism – yes, I’m sure this is an attempt to get a more “mainstream” audience – and your loyalties to certain types of music. And just listen to “Golden Hour” for what it is: a rather wonderful pop album.