The clear blue sky on the cover of the new album from Kacey Musgraves signals a bright and hopeful new beginning both musically and personally. After getting married last year Kacey naturally began to write more love songs, leaving behind the wry humour of her previous albums. The songs on Golden Hour are quietly introspective, creating a comfortable hazy bliss to get lost in.
Opening with a track called Slow Burn is a signal to her listeners: take your time with these songs. Modern music often batters the listener into submission from the start with heavy beats or layers of sound. Kacey has the confidence to allow her songs to catch fire in their own time. Some may find this style difficult to fall instantly in love with but aren’t the best ones the hardest work anyway? Kacey’s quiet vocal confidence is matched in the dreamy pop style, with just enough acoustic strum to make this a familiar bridge from her previous album.
Lonely Weekend is a perfect anthem for the FOMO generation and has an effortless Fleetwood Mac sound. Butterflies takes the chrysalis of a cliched image and transforms it into something truly original. The quietly subtle instrumentation really allows her voice to flutter free. Hearing the live version of this song from C2C only made me love it more and you do wonder why they haven’t pushed this more to radio, as it’s the natural lead single from the album.
Hearing the vocoder effect at the start of Oh, What a World might be a bit alarming at first but it’s a reflection of the distorted reality she sees around her. There’s a trippy, blissed out feel in the way the music swirls around your head like little fluffy clouds. The song explores the infinite wonders of the universe and how she can barely believe her good luck at finally finding love. These are real things, she reminds herself, thank god it’s not too good to be true. Still we all have to come down from the high at some point and the next song Mother was actually written after she took some LSD. But this is not just some sentimental drug induced sob – there are real truths here. It is hard to cope when your family doesn’t live near you (she mentions missing her sister in Lonely Weekend too). A marriage doesn’t necessarily fill every hole in your life and that’s okay to admit too.
Love is a Wild Thing might be the most traditionally ‘country’ sounding song on the album, but it reveals itself slowly. Nothing needs to be rushed, especially not a melody or love. Similarly Space Cowboy feels almost artificially slowed down to underline the emptiness she felt in her previous relationship. The line ‘when a horse wants to run, there ain’t no sense in closing the gate’ and the clever wordplay of the title make this some of the best lyrics she has ever written.
Happy & Sad might seem like a lazy song title but this simplicity is part of its appeal and it’s one of the best songs on the record. At this point in the album I did begin to think more about the negative responses that I’ve read recently about Kacey. Before I started writing this review my instinct was to only be positive because there’s so many critics and online trolls out there who hate Kacey just because she doesn’t fit their preferred musical genre expectations. In fact I wrote something in her defence after she was announced as headliner for C2C festival (read my rant here). However having spent time considering things I have decided it would be disingenuous of me not to discuss some of the issues I do have about the second half of this album.
Firstly there has been widespread disappointment that Kacey uses a more pop style of production with very little steel or banjo in the mix as in the past. I must say when she discussed influences like Sade, Daft Punk and the Bee Gees my heart did sink and not just because they’re not country, but because they’re just not that personally interesting to me as a listener.
In the end she hasn’t gone full ‘pop’ like Taylor Swift or followed the mainstream country chart trends but on some songs there’s an inexplicable move away from the country sound she had perfected, for example on Velvet Elvis. Similarly the polarising disco song High Horse would have suited being a stomping hoedown so much more (it includes the phrase ‘giddy up’ for god’s sake) and it just feels like self sabotage to go so far against your own natural musical strengths in this way. Or maybe I just hate disco too much to ever be convinced by this new direction.
And I agree with those who have criticised the sometimes sleepy production. In particular some of the songs on the second half of the album, like Wonder Woman and Golden Hour, fall a little flat. The closing piano ballad Rainbow is refreshingly direct but, for me, suffers in comparison with the song of the same name that Kesha released last year (now there’s an album which managed to move an artist in an interesting new direction without entirely abandoning what made them a success in the first place).
Unfortunately it may end up that Golden Hour doesn’t do enough to win over the fans of traditional country or the more mainstream country pop fans either and you just wonder about the logic of releasing an album which might leave her searching for a new audience. But I respect her for that choice too. If she’s more comfortable out there on her own, free of expectations, then that’s cool and I really hope it will bring her the success she deserves but I also understand how some fans may feel a little uncertain about her future direction.
Overall for me Kacey’s voice is still undeniably perfect on every track and I think there is enough quality here to elevate Golden Hour above many other releases this year. I’m a loyal fan and hopefully the songs I’m not so keen on will just be those slow burns she promised. So don’t be surprised if you see me dancing in the aisles to High Horse when Kacey comes to the U.K. later this year – I wouldn’t want to be the one who kills the buzz.
If you leave your expectations at the door, relax and try to enjoy the pleasures that are here rather than searching for what is missing then listening to Golden Hour will be time well spent.