Album Review – “Golden Hour” By Kacey Musgraves

We live in an unsettled, unfortunate time in country music where the music itself has taken a back seat to political agendas, and ultra biased identity qualifiers that ultimately get baked into how certain musical performers are covered in the media. Where it used to be that the quality of the music, the deftness of the songwriting, the soul of the performances, and the talent of the singer were the measurables that decided which artists’ names rose to the rafters on the words of critics, now it’s who they are, what their political affiliation is, and their willingness to expound on those political beliefs on social media that factor in most into who becomes the most critically-lauded, and widely-covered artists in the media at large.

This is an environment that favors Kacey Musgraves, while it also allows her to run naturally afoul of conservative and traditional listeners. With so much discussion swirling around the meaning of her music and career, it’s near impossible to cancel out all the noise and focus on the music itself. But it’s important that you try, now more than ever, to shove aside all the extraneous concerns, not allow any single perspective infer your judgements stronger than your own (including this one), and ask yourself, “Is this music any good?”

Golden Hour is definitely a move to a more pop, and less country approach to the music by Kacey Musgraves. But it’s far from the rebuke of country some are salivating to characterize it as for their ulterior purposes. Perhaps there is a passing verse or two that could be characterized as political by some stretch, but Golden Hour is in no way a political album, with Musgraves putting political enterprises in her music well in the past, despite the continued protestations of ill-informed listeners, and the mischaracterizations of fawning media. Golden Hour really isn’t “empowering” in any way, even though this has become the stock accolade for any song or album released by a woman these days, which ultimately dilutes the efficacy of the verb.

Instead, Golden Hour is a mild-mannered, mid tempo and dreamy collection of Kacey Musgraves musings presented to the world in hopes people will listen regardless of their genre preferences or political affiliations. In fact for all the noise and divisiveness Musgraves stirs in the public, the prevailing concern upon Golden Hour might be that it’s too quiet, and too inert to ultimately be memorable beyond the release cycle.

On Golden Hour, it feels like everything has been run through a lavender filter. Listening to the record, you feel like you’re succumbing to a room full of scented candles. It’s borderline shoegaze without the volume, and without enough tempo to even compare it to top dream pop projects like Alvvays. Granted, for some this characterization of the music will be taken as a compliment, not a criticism. But as a whole, Golden Hour just feels very soft. Musgraves addressed this in a recent interview.

I charted the [beats per minute] of every country song that had hit No. 1 in the past year and charted the BPMs of my entire record and looked at them side by side. They were, if not the same tempos as my record, even slower. I gave [the data] to them, and they were like, “Yeah, but it’s more of, like, a perceived tempo thing — what it sounds like the tempo is.” Like, perceived tempo?! I don’t even know anymore.

But they’re exactly right. There’s a dearth of rhythm elements on this record, and a lack of groove. It’s not just about beats per minute. It’s a feeling, or a lack thereof. For some songs, the context of an album is helpful. But for Golden Hour and one of the better songs we heard before it’s release, “Space Cowboy,” the song feels more inhibited by the album context. It just becomes one of many rhythm-starved, droning, ethereal tracks that give this record a lack of body. Conversely, the worst track released before the album, “High Horse,” is one of the few tracks that helps this record along, and gives it at least some bit of a heartbeat.

Musgraves herself has said she doesn’t really care if the radio plays any tracks from Golden Hour, but she’s missing the point of trying. Of course Kacey Musgraves doesn’t need radio at this stage of her career. It’s radio that needs Kacey Musgraves. By releasing two initial singles instead of one, and not even attempting a promotional strategy to get them played, she is letting the misogynistic radio programmers off the hook, and not helping the effort to return feminine voices to the airwaves. It doesn’t matter if Musgraves hasn’t been radio relevant for a few years (neither was Scotty McCreery until recently), she’s still one of the biggest women artists out there in country, and there are some songs, despite the lack of tempo, that could fly on country radio if given a chance.

And no, this record is not especially “country.” But some of the songs feature very country lyricism, and even some banjo and traditional instrumentation that work as capable genre guideposts if nothing else.

Golden Hour has some good songs. “Space Cowboy” is a very solid track, and it was well written by Musgraves with Luke Laird and Shane McAnally. “Butterflies” co-written with Luke Laird and Natalie Hemby is also quite strong, even if it’s not especially country. And yes, these were the songs we heard ahead of the release. Another song that crowds have heard before is the final song of the record, and arguably the best of the lot—the beautifully-written “Rainbow” authored by Natalie Hemby and Shane McAnally with Musgraves.

But aside from two other tracks, the remainder of Golden Hour is taken up with co-writes by the two producers of the album, Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuck. It also happens to be the production of Golden Hour where Kacey Musgraves was let down. Whenever you see the names of producers duplicitously placed in the songwriting credits, this is always a bad sign, especially in country. This is a culture of the pop world, where studio or computer work somehow allow producers to abscond with songwriting credits, and the results are often subpar. It’s a whole new way for producers to make money and homogenize American culture all at the same time, and it’s what’s putting the artists themselves as the second most important partner in the music making process. Golden Hour isn’t Musgraves asserting her creative spark, it’s her succumbing to the formulaic power scheme putting producers in charge that is plaguing so much of popular music.

The writing of the opening song “Slow Burn” is really solid, and really delves deep into the perspective on life that Musgraves brings to her music, helping to set the table for the rest of the record. But “Slow Burn” could have been so much better without such faulty production, like so much of Golden Hour. The stupid vocoder interjections on “Oh, What A World” make a mild song trying to be psychedelic just plain annoying.

The title track might be the worst song on the entire record, challenged for this distinction by the saccharine “Happy and Sad.” “Wonder Woman” isn’t about empowerment or the power of femininity, it’s actually about Musgraves’ failings and feelings of weakness and vulnerability trying to morph into a love song. The one exception to the Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuck tracks marking the worst Golden Hour has to offer is the song “Mother,” which is extraordinary and sublime, very personal to Musgraves (though Tashian and Fitchuck get co credits of course), and it really helps bolster the case for this record. However at 1:18, “Mother” is more of an interlude than a song.

But even the best records have filler and flops. It’s the top tracks that will go on to tell the story of an album for future listeners, and Golden Hour has a few of them. The folks who say they would never even consider Kacey because of her political affiliations are completely off base. Not letting politics get in the way of music is a two-way street. Kacey Musgraves has respected people’s leanings for a second straight record, and listeners should return the favor. And all the talk of how Musgraves’ turn towards pop with this record is no different than Taylor Swift is out of bounds. This is not material for radio pop by any stretch. Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuck—however outwitted and unhelpful as they were here—are no Max Martin and Shellback.

Nonetheless, this is the moment in Kacey Musgraves’ career that as we have seen time and time again, where an artist claims boredom with country, and goes searching for inspiration or fortune in other pastures. Of course the media loves to drive home this perception that country is too constricting on the creative output of a true artist, and often the artist’s bite. Or as Musgraves says herself of country, “I feel like it can be a little … not sedentary, but one-dimensional?”

Yet this perspective resulted in arguably the most colorless, odorless, one-dimensional album of Kacey’s career (except for the fading scent from those lavender candles). As has been the mark of the Musgraves career arc, she’s always hinted towards incredible potential, but has never seemed to seal the deal creatively or commercially, except in isolated moments. All the right pieces are there, but Kacey gets lost in her own self-perceptions instead of leaning on her strengths. Ultimately it might be a Christmas record and “Merry Go ‘Round” that define the apex of her career, simply because these things are her instead of something she’s trying to be.

Golden Hour is fine, and nobody should overlook the few takeaway tracks like “Space Cowboy,” “Rainbow,” and “Mother.” It’s better than much of what you hear in the mainstream, and there’s nothing on here that’s offensive in any way, but it’s not the “psychadelic” album you’ve been sold (see: Marty Stuart’s Way Out West). But six months from now, the only people talking about this album might the ones who love to champion artists’ public personas over the music itself because it just lacks the underlying edge or grit you need in country to grasp onto people’s souls for the long term.

One Gun Up (5.5/10)

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