At its worst, country music can sound like a caricature of itself: ballads reinforcing the glory of male chauvinism set against the material comforts of rural white America. At its best, country music sounds like Kacey Musgraves’s third studio album, Golden Hour: a 13-song portrait of one’s search for peace between the security of small town life and the possibilities offered by the outside world. Musgraves evokes classic country iconography here with all sincerity, but she also allows it to coexist with more radical sonic and thematic influences. It’s tender, wise, and enough to make us rethink what country music can achieve.
Country purists have criticized Musgraves before for taking rebellious, progressive stances in her music (including mentions of recreational drug use, which she’s been candid about). But there’s no doubt that she loves her roots, based on how her odes to love and simple living possess that innocence and sincerity you’d expect from a country singer. It’s just that she’s a little more self-aware than most. In “Space Cowboy,” she subverts the macho Western image into a break-up line (“You can have your space / Cowboy”), while in “High Horse,” she takes the quintessentially country phrase “giddy up” and wields it in a playfully mocking way (“So why don’t you giddy up, giddy up / And ride straight out of this town?”). It’s clear she knows the stereotype of her chosen genre, and she isn’t afraid to address it.
But Musgraves isn’t out to wage war on the history of country music. Most of the conflict in Golden Hour instead stems from the doubt one can have in their place in the world, or their place with other people—building tension in the very spaces between lyrics. In “Oh, What a World,” she hesitates with her phrasing (“Thank God it’s not / Too good to be true”). In “Mother,” she seems to let slip the depths that a sad thought can go (“Wish we didn’t live / Wish we didn’t live so far from each other”). Golden Hour is all about this push and pull, and it’s riveting to listen to it unfold.
The record moves at a dreamlike pace, with shards of high emotion scattered evenly throughout.
So for an album more or less about uncertainty and compromise, it’s surprising how deliberate and confident Musgraves’s experimentation with sound is. There’s the pure country of “Love Is a Wild Thing,” more beat-driven tracks like “Lonely Weekend” and “Velvet Elvis,” the surprisingly assured disco of “High Horse,” and psychedelic synthesizers behind even the softest melodies. And emerging through it all are Musgraves’s candid, almost conversational vocals—never straining, never too sugary, and effortlessly gliding from one hook to the next.
It would have been enough for Golden Hour to simply be a collection of these 13 ambitious songs, but the album works infinitely better as a structured whole. The record moves at a dreamlike pace, with shards of high emotion scattered evenly throughout. The title track, which also happens to be the most straightforward of Musgraves’s songs, is smartly placed second-to-last, where its unabashed sweetness is more than earned. And the best song on the album, “Mother” addresses distance, memory, and pain across generations in a little over a minute. It drifts in and out like a footnote, but its impact is unforgettable. It’s these understated moments that make Golden Hour essential—even if you’ve never listened to country music before.
Golden Hour is streaming on Spotify.