Why Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Golden Hour’ Is A Rare Common Touchstone In Modern Pop

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Kacey Musgrave’s Golden Hour landed at No. 1 on our 2018 critic poll’s best albums list. Check out the poll here, and our thoughts on the album’s impact below.

Last week, I was listening to “Slow Burn” by Kacey Musgraves for — I’m guessing here — the 397th time. Suddenly, I noticed something that seems completely obvious now but had eluded me the previous 396 times. This is the magic of great pop-country songwriting: You create a song that is instantly likable and can efficiently set a mood for an entire album, as “Slow Burn” does as the first track on Musgraves’ masterful third record, Golden Hour. And then, at the same time, you also embed subtle, almost subliminal elements that will ensure a song can withstand heavy rotation on playlists and country radio. (That is, if country radio deigned to actually play Musgraves and other women as often as they deserve.)

In the case of “Slow Burn,” I immediately thought it was Musgraves’ best song the moment I heard it. But I could never figure out why it had moved me so much, so quickly. Sure, I could intellectualize my response, and note how those evocative opening lines (“Born in a hurry, always late / Haven’t been early since ’88”) perfectly set up the song’s leisurely, somewhat melancholic celebration of a burgeoning love affair. But let’s set aside the music critic language for a moment — what is it about “Slow Burn” that resonated with my unthinking lizard brain?

Perhaps you can relate to hearing a song and feeling as though you’ve already lived with it for years — that’s what “Slow Burn” did to me. It was brand new and yet also vaguely familiar. Finally, on my 397th listen, I figured it out: “Slow Burn” reminds me of “Old Man” by Neil Young, a song I’ve heard at least 1,397 times. The plaintive guitar chords, the plonking banjo, the spaciousness of the arrangement, the yearning vocal — “Slow Burn” points to “Old Man” without baldly ripping it off, or even sounding that much like it. The nature of the homage is more figurative than literal; it’s a friendly, offhand nod, not an aggressively stated talking point. It’s there if you want to hear it, and invisible if you don’t know or care about Neil Young.

My engagement with the first song on Golden Hour, I think, helps to explain why the album won the Uproxx Critics’ Poll in a landslide. At a time when pop music is more diverse and diffuse than ever, with international stars and stateside upstarts racking up hundreds of millions of streams while bankable superstars rapidly fade away, Golden Hour seemed like a rare common touchstone. It’s a country album that sounds like a pop album that feels like an indie album that speaks to listeners who normally don’t care about country, pop, or indie music. Golden Hour has impressive breadth, but it’s designed to be appreciated by listeners who might be tuned to only part of its frequency.

According to the comprehensive spreadsheet of year-end lists compiled by my friend, the critic Rob Mitchum, Musgraves did equally well among mainstream establishment outlets like NPR and Rolling Stone, and more youth-oriented sites such as Uproxx, Pitchfork, Stereogum, and Noisey, many of which don’t normally cover country or Americana artists all that extensively. This, by itself, isn’t that big of a surprise. Since her breakout debut Same Trailer, Different Park in 2013, Musgraves has garnered regular coverage in the indie music press. This was partly due to “Follow Your Arrow,” the gay rights anthem that set Musgraves apart from the conservative country world. Musically speaking, however, Musgraves distinguished herself on Same Trailer and 2015’s Pageant Material as a traditionalist viewed by many critics as an antidote to the bro-y excesses of pop country, though without the overly stern, turgid humorlessness that often defines “insurgent” country types.

Image-wise, Musgraves has always been malleable — she’s close enough to the roots of country music to tour with Willie Nelson, and enough of a pop artist to also open for Katy Perry. (In 2018, she played with Little Big Town and Harry Styles on major arena tours.) But until Golden Hour, her actual music was more or less traditional twang presented with considerable, but conventional, craft. The magic of Golden Hour is that she was finally able to translate that malleability in her music, resulting in an album that sounds different depending on the set of expectations you take into it.

When you read Musgraves’ album reviews or her magazine profiles, it’s sometimes hard to tell if journalists are talking about the same person. Golden Hour has been discussed in the context of #MeToo, marriage, and marijuana. Musically, it has been likened to Daft Punk, Sade, Madonna’s Ray Of Light, and the War On Drugs. The first time I heard it, I immediately compared it in my mind to Fleetwood Mac’s lush and coke-addled 1987 masterpiece Tango In The Night, a common reference point for indie pop musicians this decade. Musgraves’ herself called it “galactic country,” an appropriately big sky descriptor for an album that organically integrates so many different styles.

I wouldn’t argue against any of these comparisons, even if I don’t personally hear every allusion myself. The point is that Golden Hour is an exquisitely produced pop record so rich and densely saturated with mismatched yet well-chosen instrumental tones — the banjos, the gated reverb, the pedal steel, the sci-fi vocoder — that it offers seemingly infinite entry points without being heavy-handed or obvious about any particular entry point. It evokes Harvest and Random Access Memories and Lovers Rock without seeming to bite all that much from any of them.

Whether Golden Hour is actually a country record, I suppose, is a question that still interests some people, though not me. It doesn’t sound like country to me, really, but I also feel like Golden Hour is Musgraves’ best album by far precisely because she no longer seems interested in tiresome authenticity debates. While Same Trailer and Pageant Material seemed like overt gestures to accrue “real” country credibility, Golden Hour is a full-throated embrace of the polymath pop that has probably always been Musgraves’ true forte.

This musical pivot proved to be canny for Musgraves in 2018, and likely beyond. While country radio continues to sputter when it comes to supporting worthwhile (and successful!) women artists, Musgraves is now aligned with an ascendant generation of young singer-songwriters that have come to dominate indie rock. Lucy Dacus, Sophie Allison of Soccer Mommy, and Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail have all come out as fans of Golden Hour, perhaps because Musgraves seems more like a contemporary at this point than an outsider curiosity from the country world. (Another indie world fan, Ezra Koenig, has mentioned Musgraves as an influence on the forthcoming Vampire Weekend album.)

“This album is the bridge many of us hope to find between us and our families,” Dacus astutely observed in GQ, “between country and songwriter rock, between coastal culture centers and the American South.” Dacus is right — not only is Golden Hour one of the best albums of recent years, it might also be the most generous. Let it be your bridge from the familiar to the unknown.

Golden Hour is out now via MCA Nashville. Get it here. Check out more of our 2018 critics poll results here.