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There's a line in "Slow Burn," the opening track of Kacey Musgraves' new album Golden Hour, that has been recycled, word for word, from her unreleased crowd-pleaser "John Prine" (better known to her fans as "Burn One With John Prine"). The song was an early introduction to her performing persona, an occasion for her to wear her irreverent outlook as a badge of honor and slyly boast: "Grandma cried when I pierced my nose / Never liked doing what I was told."
To those who have been eager to apply a rebel narrative to an artist testing country music's boundaries, the 29-year-old singer-songwriter's cheekiness and the campy, Instagram-friendly way she has interpreted the cowgirl costuming of her musical Texas youth held quite the appeal. For two consecutive major-label albums she applied her millennial detachment, withering wit and high standards for cleverness and craft to an understanding of how small-town life, a central theme in country music, can be both sustaining and stifling, how genuine caring and self-righteous meddling are both delivered with sugar-coated pleasantries. In her artfully biting way, she played with tone of voice, perspective and inflection, intent on showcasing the intellect behind her country-pop approach.
When Musgraves echoes the line from "John Prine" now, it lands very differently. "I can be cold," she acknowledges, before recalling her grandmother's tearful reaction to her facial piercing once again. This time, her self-awareness has taken on a pensive, lamenting quality, like she's weighing the relational impact of asserting her individuality.
After establishing a reputation as a serious, smart-assed songwriter in a masculine musical lineage, it must have been a bit nerve-wracking for Musgraves to make room for softer, more sincere expression — and accompanying changes to her sonic palette — on Golden Hour. Back in February, she eased us into the idea that these outlooks could coexist in her work by sharing two songs at once. "Space Cowboy" deployed coolly cutting word play and wistful twang; "Butterflies" captured the exhilaration of new love and delicately dressed her singing in spacey vocal effects. At least one other song among the album's 13 tracks, the discofied "High Horse," still projects an eye-rolling indifference, but Musgraves spends just as much time exploring vulnerability. "Lonely Weekend," a moony, acoustic pop number with a mildly tropical pulse, articulates introverted insecurities. "I keep looking at my phone, putting it back down," she sings. "There's a little part of me that's got the fear of missing out." In "Happy & Sad," a track whose sedate drum loop and supple vocal phrasing lend it mellow syncopation, she confesses a melancholy distrust of newfound bliss.
She voices admiration for the unpredictable power of emotion in "Love Is a Wild Thing," whose acoustic strumming and banjo arpeggios give way to shimmery synths and swelling steel guitar. In the piano ballad "Rainbow," she's sweetly comforting: "You hold tight to your umbrella / But darlin', I'm just trying to tell ya / That there's always been a rainbow hanging over your head." "Golden Hour" combines tense, Neil Young-ish guitar chords with the rhythm section's soft, rubbery bounce and creamy ooh-aah harmonies — that is, until the bridge, when Musgraves' voice sits alone out front. "You make the world look beautiful," she marvels. "Thought I'd seen it all before."
More than in the past, Musgraves is encouraging listeners to hear the autobiography woven through her songs, situating them as the fruit of her finding love and getting married. But there's still a tentative side to her tenderness; she's a reflective songwriter and a reedy, temperate singer, often examining her feelings from a bit of a remove. Besides, she sees no need to separate sentimentality from third-person-perspective psychedelia, weaving easygoing eccentricities into thosegreat, affecting country and pop themes of missing mom and home and getting swept off your feet by a lover.
"Oh What a World" summons the rosy, idealistic awe of "What a Wonderful World," only its musings are cosmic, peppered with allusions to past lives, bioluminescent sea creatures and hallucenogenics, pairing robotic-sounding vocoderwith auroral steel guitar. According to the album's official bio and liner notes, "Mother" was written in all of 15 minutes — while Musgraves was on LSD, no less. Not even a minute-and-a-half long, it's more of a deliberately raw fragment — an outburst of pining and affection for her mom, back in Texas — than a finished song.
In "Velvet Elvis," a declaration of affection in the language of kitsch, co-written with two of the most mischievous minds on Music Row, Luke Dick and Natalie Hemby, Musgraves crows, "I wanna show you off every evening / Go out with you in powder blue and tease my hair up high," the insinuating melody sauntering across the bars of the steady groove.
Musgraves has had a hand in shaping her sound for years, dating back to when she co-produced her breakthrough with ingenious studio minds Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, who've remained a part of her songwriting circle. This time around, she worked with Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, veterans of Nashville's indie singer-songwriter scene, who've grown adept at applying their sensibilities to mainstream settings, and they arrived at an even-tempered blend of confessional intimacy, silky countrypolitan embellishment and pop experimentalism. She told one interviewer that she'd asked herself, "What would it sound like if Imogen Heap made a country album?"
After several years of making space for herself in her genre and the broader musical landscape, Musgraves is nervy enough to let her guard down and embrace her complexity, and that's given her listeners more to grab a hold of than ever.