Golden Hour offers an expansive moment at redefinition.
If Kacey Musgraves made her name on self-definition, Golden Hour offers an expansive moment at redefinition. Musgraves’ status as Nashville rebel was always a little tenuous. She wasn’t the first country singer to talk about marijuana or the boys’ club aspect of the business or to be unwilling simply to fit in with the general tone of country’s mainstream. If she wasn’t the first, she was one of the best, and if her records sold well and received Grammy nominations, that didn’t indicate that she wasn’t pushing at transgression. “Biscuits” might have been folksy wisdom, but “Follow Your Arrow” offered something different. Now she’s back with an album that offers a new side of her: less country, less pointedly outsider, but still sharp and meticulous.
That’s not to say that Musgraves doesn’t step outside traditional boundaries. “High Horse” rides on a disco production, her furthest foray from country aesthetics. After a pulsing intro, Musgraves shoots down the idea of someone being John Wayne. Instead, she sings, “You’re classic in the wrong way.” It’s a sharp put-down to open a fun number, but it’s also a call back to “Velvet Elvis,” where just two tracks earlier she sang, “All I ever wanted was something classic.” Across Golden Hour, Musgraves pieces together a world, an outlook that manifest in different ways but that coheres as a single vision. In both “High Horse” and “Velvet Elvis,” she plays with American imagery (the mythic cowboy and the kitschy totems of Elvis Presley) in different manners but consistently in the articulation of what matters, defining both desire and classic authenticity.
In the middle of those two tracks comes “Wonder Woman,” a deceptively thoughtful song about idealizing romantic partners, gender roles and the limits of relationships. She recognizes her own imperfections but also acknowledges the inconsistency of what perfect would be anyhow. If being a superhero means having the power to draw love out of someone else, that’s a problem. On the other hand, opportunities for real connection exist if the partners understand they neither are nor want a Wonder Woman or a Superman.
This reflection comes as no surprise considering Musgraves’ announcement on her patience in opener “Slow Burn.” She takes a deep breath that essentially lasts the length of the album. Her previous songwriting threw sharp insights and incisive wit at us; none of that is gone exactly, but this album works best as a slow unveiling rather than in memorable couplets, even if plenty of moments like this cut’s “Good in a glass, good on green/ Good when you’re putting your hands all over me” exist. The album relies on its world-building, and it rewards patient listening with its songwriting.
The songs come with a shift away from immediate country into a poppier sound, surprisingly more ’70s rock than country-pop (think Stevie Nicks instead of Kelsea Ballerini). The change makes for a smoother listen, and while Musgraves puts a psychedelic tinge on some tracks, these tracks don’t fit into the lineage of, say, Gram Parsons. As she’s done in the past, Musgraves writes without concern for either fitting into a traditional or explicitly resisting one (part of the reason the outsider label has only been so useful). That approach allows her the freedom to pursue her latest personal vision, whether the dream ballad of “Space Cowboy” or the vocoder effects of “Oh, What a World.”
Single “Butterflies” responds to her husband’s love and support, marking a musical as well as a personal liberation as she sings of what “brought me out of my chrysalis.” She’s writing for something rather than against something, and the open tone of the song suits it well. With its banjo picking, the song could point Musgraves toward some peaceful indie-folk; with its vocal effects, maybe she’ll collaborate with Daft Punk (and the world could use a Daft Punk/Kacey Musgraves/Sufjan Stevens moment). Musgraves has always sounded like someone who simply does her own thing. Golden Hour is the latest incarnation of that, a welcoming treat mostly driven by calm reflection with different packaging for her perceptivity.