Word on the bandwidth is that Kacey Musgraves dropped acid while listening to a Tame Impala record and now she’s the greatest country-singer-for-people-who-don’t-listen-to-country-music that our dumb century has ever heard.
What a dim way to think about Musgraves’s “Golden Hour,” an extraordinary new album which, sure, may have been inspired by hallucinogens and pseudo psych-rock but still aces many of the tests that we expect a great country album to pass. For one, if country music is about everyday life, here’s a songwriter arguing that awe and bewilderment are essential to our everyday lives. What a heavy thought to make light. Our wonderment is completely ordinary.
And while Musgraves seems to be gazing into this titanic truth through a drowsy third-eye, her calm feels particularly un-trippy during “Oh, What a World,” a small song about big mysteries. Across two sweetly sung verses, she jots down a grocery list of mindblowers — the aurora borealis, bioluminescent sea creatures, psychoactive plants, a belief in reincarnation, the possibility of a multiverse — and then repeats a little mantra to keep her brain from floating off into the void like a slippery helium balloon. “These are real things,” she tells herself. “Yeah, these are real things.”
For reality-obsessed country music fans, that’s a serious piece of bubble gum to chew on. Musgraves’s reality is the only one she has to go by. And the same goes for you, and for me, and for everybody else.
You need to hear the music, though. It’s easy to reduce a country song to its lyrics, and Musgraves knows that the real meaning of a song lies in how the voice illuminates the words, anyway. So now she seems to be approaching her singing as if it were some kind of meditation. Instead of going on lung-scorching rocket rides or sinking into pillowy whisper games, Musgraves only ever appears to be moving toward the stillness of the center of her voice. The effect can be strange and beautiful. She sounds her most emotive whenever she sounds her most bored. And what’s boredom, really? The softest kind of yearning.
That soft desire has been the hallmark of Musgraves’s music ever since 2013’s “Same Trailer, Different Park,” a tremendous debut album that captures the bruising stretch of adulthood when your idealism begins to sour. Musgraves tried to stay that course with 2015’s “Pageant Material,” but nearly derailed the whole thing with too many winking lyrical puns that veered toward Etsy crocheted pillow territory. (“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy,” for instance.)
That’s another reason “Golden Hour” feels like a triumph — it never sounds cute, even when it sounds clever. Like when she duets with a vocoder on “Oh, What a World.” Or when she rides a Phoenix-style disco beat on “High Horse.” She’s deploying new tools to tweak the temperature, but everything is presented in the same understated way that Musgraves delivers her words. She bends her music neatly to the contours of her voice.
As a lyricist, she’s still a straight talker hoping to communicate cosmic stuff as plainly as possible — and when she’s not up to the challenge, she does something great. She bails. Check out the willowy chorus of “Happy & Sad” when Musgraves asks, “Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight?” Maybe, probably. But instead of working to find it, she settles for seven words: “Happy and sad at the same time.” It’s hard to imagine a more perfect piece of stoner poetry than that.
Even greater stumbles come in the opening line of “Butterflies,” a song co-written with Music Row superscribes Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird. “I was just coasting, never really going anywhere,” Musgraves sings at the outset, strumming her guitar, no particular place to go. “Caught up in a web, I was getting kind of used to staying there.”
When the refrain hits, it's the power of love that — quietly, delicately, almost unceremoniously — swoops in to save the day. But it’s good to listen to the opening lines of “Butterflies” in isolation. For a singer who can do efficiency so well, that first couplet feels redundant, untidy, jammed up with a tentative “really” and a space-eating “kind of.” But then Musgraves exhales the melody so evenly, so uneventfully, it’s difficult to feel any turbulence.
And how’s that for a metaphor? Life is boring, and overcrowded, and a bit of a mess, and you’re probably drifting right through it without even noticing. Here’s a country singer who has been kind enough to open her third eye and take note. The rest of us only have to open our ears.