In my more than twenty-five years of listening to and absorbing country music, I’ve come to observe the many different artistic paths taken by artists who either desire to play in the vast wilderness of mainstream pop, double down on a commercial sound out of desperation for relevancy, morph into an artistic powerhouse or stay pigeonholed as a one trick pony unable to diversify.
Kacey Musgraves really hasn’t taken any of those paths on Golden Hour. She’s simply hit the reset button on a career that had devolved into parody, with songs like the half-baked “Biscuits” showcasing an artist tail-spinning artistically. There was little to enjoy about Pageant Material, and while it was traditional, it just didn’t hit the mark on any level. Musgraves had become a persona, losing sight of the fact she had to be a human being, too.
Those days are long gone. Golden Hour isn’t just a step in the right direction. The album is leaps and bounds ahead of anything she’s done in the wake of Same Trailer, Different Park.
Our first taste of the new music, “Butterflies,” is a beautiful ode to coming into one’s own through a budding relationship and a metaphor for her new direction:
I was just coastin’, never really goin anywhere
Caught up in a web, I was gettin’ kinda used to stayin’ there
And out of the blue, I fell for you
Now you’re lifting me up ‘stead of holding me down
Stealing my heart ‘stead of stealing my crown
Untangled all the strings ’round my wings that were tied
I didn’t know him and I didn’t know me
Cloud Nine was always out of reach
Now, I remember what it feels like to fly
You give me butterflies
Kiss full of color makes me wonder where you’ve always been
I was hiding in doubt ‘ill you brought me out of my chrysalis
And I came out new all because of you
Shane McAnally makes his sole appearance on the album courtesy of “Space Cowboy,” which wonderfully chronicles a relationship that had simply run its course:
You can have your space, cowboy
I ain’t gonna fence you in
Go on ride away, in your Silverado
Guess I’ll see you ’round again
I know my place, and it ain’t with you
Sunsets fade, and love does too
Yeah, we had our day in the sun
When a horse wants to run, there ain’t no sense in closing the gate
You can have your space, cowboy
After the gold rush, there ain’t no reason to stay
Shoulda learned from the movies that good guys don’t run away
But roads weren’t made to not go down
There ain’t room for both of us in this town
To prove she’s still the same woman we’ve come to know and love, Musgraves had to include one nod to her past, albeit with very different window dressing. “High Horse” is an excellent kiss-off to anyone who acts righteous and likely doesn’t even know it. This is her attempt at disco, and while the beat is infectious, I’m hearing EDM more than traditional disco. The track, no matter how well-executed, is a polarizing moment for mainstream country. I love it, so none of this truly matters to me.
The pop-infused “Happy & Sad” is another standout moment and my favorite thing Musgraves has ever done. The lyric may find her having a good time at a party, having an incredible time with a guy, but knows better than to fully give in:
Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight?
Happy and sad at the same time
You got me smilin’ with tears in my eyes
I never felt so high
No, I’ve never been this far off of the ground
And they say everything that goes up must come down
But I don’t wanna come down
The brilliance of “Happy & Sad” is how Musgraves uses the story to display growth and maturity by writing from the perceptive of a woman her own age, who has had enough relationship experience to no longer allow the fairytale aspects of a new relationship cloud her judgment. She may have “never felt so high” but she’s introspective enough to know there’s always another side where the high wears off.
The banjo and steel infused “Oh What A World” is the evolution from “Happy & Sand” and finds Musgraves in the place where she can finally, and unequivocally, let go of any and all self-doubt:
Oh, what a world, don’t wanna leave
All kinds of magic all around us, it’s hard to believe
Thank God it’s not too good to be true
Oh, what a world, and then there is you
She’s clearly referring to her husband, musician Ruston Kelly, whom she married while in the process of writing and recording this album. Their relationship comes up again on the title track:
Baby don’t you know?
That you’re my golden hour
The color of my sky
You’ve set my world on fire
And I know, I know everything’s gonna be alright
Musgraves’ feelings for Kelly are at the center of “Velvet Elvis” a sonically adventurous ballad in which she defines their relationship as classic but kitschy. She admits she’s “only human” on “Wonder Woman,” in which the banjo returns to underscore an important admission:
But, baby, I ain’t Wonder Woman
I don’t know how to lasso the love out of you
Don’t you know I’m only human?
And if I let you down, I don’t mean to
All I need’s a place to land
I don’t need a Superman to win my lovin’
‘Cause, baby, I ain’t Wonder Woman
The banjo also plays a role in the sonic texture of the confectionary “Love Is A Wild Thing,” which stood out to me right off the bat when I initially listened to the album. I don’t hate but don’t love “Slow Burn” or “Lonely Weekend.” They aren’t weak tracks by any means, but I found Musgraves’ phrasing throughout both of them to be slightly annoying.
The album also boasts two piano-based ballads that offer a change of pace. “Mother” is an ambiguous and short lullaby. She closes the album with “Rainbow,” a song for anyone bearing the weight of the world on their shoulders, which she played at her grandmother’s funeral.
Like most of modern country, it’s difficult to classify Golden Hour. It debuted on the Billboard Country and Americana/Folk Albums charts, both at #1. It isn’t ‘traditional country’ by any means but I don’t hear any radical sonic shift from what Musgraves has been doing these past five years.
To me, Golden Hour is a singer/songwriter record from a woman exploring what it means to have found a love worth holding on to for decades to come. It chronicles the budding beginnings of a marriage that will likely blossom for many albums as the years go on.