Monday, April 2, 2018

album review: 'golden hour' by kacey musgraves

I feel like I've been hearing a lot about what this record could have sounded like for so long that whatever I was going to get, I'm not sure it'd ever live up to expectations.

And I'll be the first to admit that's a really crappy thing to say or think going into one of my most anticipated records of the year from one of the heavy-hitters in artistically fascinating country adjacent to the mainstream, especially for an artist whose major label breakthrough I loved so much it was in my top three of 2013. But even since Same Trailer, Different Park, it's hard to escape the feeling that a certain amount of complexity and nuance that I was praying would expand in Kacey Musgraves' songwriting was slipping away in favour of increasingly lightweight textures and ideas. First there was Pageant Material - and yes, for as much as I loved the title track on that record, it was the sort of overly burnished traditionalist country as a whole that felt a shade too sleepy to really stick with me more deeply. And then when I had heard her next record would be a stab into 'emo country' coming after a remix collaboration with Miguel, I was thoroughly perplexed where Kacey Musgraves' brand of genre experimentation would take her...

And then she got married and started cowriting a very lovestruck, psychedelic-infused pop country album dabbling in disco and... well, it struck me as the last possible direction that would highlight her strengths as a singer or songwriter, especially when if you know your country history this is not a subgenre that's gone unexplored. Hell, if you want to take a look at disco-infused country tones, Lydia Loveless was reviving this sound two years ago to amazing effect! But even Musgraves will admit she's not as challenging or experimental as those on the fringes of Nashville or Austin these days, and in a sense, that could be fine if the writing was sharp and the compositions held up - Caitlyn Smith wasn't reinventing the wheel with Starfire and that's a pop country record that has only gotten better with every listen this year! And even despite some very concerning naysayers, the critical response has been insanely good across the board, and maybe I'm just worrying over nothing, so what the hell - how is Golden Hour?

Okay, here's the thing: I want to try and separate my vast irritation with the critical discourse and coverage surrounding this record - of which I vented about on Twitter earlier this morning - with the content of the album itself, because while I wouldn't quite say Musgraves has helped herself here, the album itself is a lot more important... and man, I wish there was more worth saying about it. That's the frustrating thing about Golden Hour: I'd argue it's a pretty damn good, at moments even great record, but it's being propped up by so many as 'the best country album of the year' by under-informed music journalists, critics and fans who will at most listen to five country records in a year as a cheap excuse to avoid delving deeper and giving them an out to crap on the larger audience that listens to country music, which they can likely get away with because of how lightweight and accessible this record is. Whereas for me... again, the record is really pretty and has some genuinely great moments, but I have the unfortunate feeling it's not going to stick with me in the same way Caitlyn Smith's Starfire or Courtney Marie Andrews' May Your Kindness Remain will, which are both just as genre-bending or accessible or atmospheric but have a core that resonates much more for me.

So let's start this with the elements I genuinely really like about this project, most notably Kacey Musgraves herself. I've always thought her brand of expressive charisma has a lot of versatility, and while she doesn't have the raw firepower or tremendous range of many of her peers, she's been able to work around it thanks to smart multi-tracking, tasteful mix placement, and the sort of clear tone and training that doesn't force notes that don't work. Now on Golden Hour there are definitely more misty touches of reverb and even vocoders that show up on songs like 'Oh, What A World'... and honestly, I think they're integrated really damn well. Comparisons have been made to Sade, but the one that really strikes me is last year's Trip with Jhene Aiko - very similar register and reliance on subtle cooing, similar languid acoustic foundations with touches of psychedelia, similar gentle synthetic touches that should feel more obtrusive and yet don't. And as one of the eight people who loved Trip, I'm a natural sell for this sort of presentation.

And when you head into the composition and production, I have to be honest I really like a lot of these tones as well, and what I find so damn amusing about the 'I hate country but I like this' crowd is how much this record proves how silly that line of thinking is. Yes, the big genre-blurring step comes in the renewed focus on languid grooves and especially the production - we'll come back to this - but on a foundational level these songs have much of the same traditionalist structure in their melodies as what she had on Same Trailer, Different Park or Pageant Material. And to some extent it's both a strength and a weakness, because while the tried-and-true formula does work on the base level, given the rest of the arrangements you often find yourself expecting the songs to pivot more, show a little more complexity. A word that's been used a lot with this record's coverage is psychedelic, but there's surprisingly little of that offbeat weirdness that's surrounds that word - more flower power than acid freakout - but that raises a new problem: it's not like Kacey Musgraves is the first artist to embrace this languid approach or realize pedal steel can sound ethereal and spacey, and you start listening for what's really all that distinctive in comparison with the pop country stylings of the late 70s and early 80s that did embrace disco, or even make a comparison to what Little Big Town has been meandering through in the past few years. And yet at least Little Big Town has brought more of a pulse on records like The Breaker - in interviews Musgraves stressed she made a point to chart the tempos of her material to prove they're on par with mainstream country, but when the vocal delivery is so relaxed and everything is cushioned in reverb and the main groove isn't carrying that tempo in comparison with the acoustic guitar and banjo strumming picking up texture more than the main melody, your songs will feel slower. And that can make otherwise pretty and textured moments get lost in the larger, listless feel of the record, which might start strong building off the textured, Steven Wilson-esque acoustic lines to the more defined tones of 'Lonely Weekend' with the more textured percussion and that wonderful whistled touch but just loses momentum from there. And it doesn't help matters when certain percussion and melodic elements feel awkwardly blended, like the staccato pianos and guitars opening 'Butterflies' or the sticky groove and arranged instrumentation around 'Velvet Elvis' - and that blown-out guitar solo didn't nearly fit as well as anyone thought - or the odd stiffness at the core of the percussion on 'Wonder Woman'. And even though I don't nearly hate 'High Horse' as much as many do for the Bee Gees-esque disco touches, especially in the strings and vocal arrangement, I will say that Lydia Loveless did this first on 'Heaven' two years ago and between the acoustic interplay with the bass, stunning multi-tracking, and killer bridge, did it far better too.

But again, there are some genuinely great tracks here - for as abbreviated as it might feel, I really dug the pianos on 'Mother' and 'Rainbow' was a beautiful, stripped down closer, and between the keening touches of pedal steel, banjo and harmonica on 'On What A World', the celesta and pedal steel touching off each other on 'Love Is A Wild Thing', the utterly stunning key shift on the instrumental bridge of 'Space Cowboy' - hell, even though I was really expecting 'Happy & Sad' to really take off from the bridge, it still works for me. And yet now we have to talk about content, and remember how I said how much this record reminded me of Trip? Well, now we get to the big differentiating factor, because while that record was meandering and overlong and had some questionable guest verses, its greatest strength came in the writing providing the complicated thematic context to add some gravitas to its spacey musings. And while Golden Hour is significantly shorter, the more listens I gave it the more I found the lyrics to be Musgraves' greatest shortfall here. And it breaks my heart to say that, considering the layered wit she brought to Same Trailer, Different Park, and it's clear she's still a great lyricist on a technical level - there's a naturalistic flow that makes this record go down impressively easy. But I've always said if this sort of dreamy, meditative music doesn't go off into weirder or darker territory to either perplex or ground itself, it ends up falling in tranquil emotionality that starts to run flat. I'm not denying that love songs like the title track or 'Velvet Elvis' or 'Butterflies' or 'Love Is A Wild Thing' have their footing in real affection, but when you suck away so much of the sarcasm and lyrical flair that Musgraves pushed for this, they come across as lacking greater dimension. Hell, I found myself gravitating to tunes that at least tried to tap into some sort of melancholy, from the breakup of 'Space Cowboy' to the loneliness of 'Lonely Weekend' or the lingering feeling that the good moments won't last on 'Happy & Sad' or the acceptance of imperfections in a partner on 'Wonder Woman'. But even then the wordplay can't help but feel a little tepid by her standards - yeah, I didn't mind taking down the posturing of 'High Horse', but she has cut FAR deeper in the past.

So look, I want to stress that this is indeed pretty damn good pop country, and I truly think once we get out of the hype cycle and the backlash inevitably to come that it'll stand as an ephemeral but generally pretty damn beautiful and enjoyable record. But it's not close to her best by any stretch and it really does showcase a lot of questionable warning signs going forward - it's underwritten, thematically it feels scattered at best, there are some questionable production choices, and it's not nearly as original or genre-pushing as it has been marketed. So let me say this: while I'm giving this an extremely light 8/10, I'm not recommending this right out of the gate when there are plenty of women who have dropped or will be dropping more compelling or experimental country music and who won't get nearly the same attention. Starfire by Caitlyn Smith, What It's Like To Fly Alone by Courtney Patton, Liberty by Lindi Ortega, and especially May Your Kindness Remain by Courtney Marie Andrews. Then after those, come back for Kacey Musgraves and Golden Hour - with this record, she made it clear she's not going anywhere.

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