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.