Album Review – Kacey Musgraves – “Deeper Well”

Kacey Musgraves will always be an important figure in American popular country music. With her debut album Same Trailer, Different Park from 2013 and songs like “Merry Go ‘Round,” she deftly navigated the dividing line between the commercially applicable and critically acclaimed, while getting subversive themes through country music’s prevailing narratives and gatekeepers of the era.

On her 2015 album Pageant Material and even her 2016 Christmas album, she brought a kitschy coolness to country music that bridged mainstream audiences with the cool hipster kids congregating in east Nashville and revitalized country music’s vintage past. With 2018’s Golden Hour, Kacey took some towering songs, and earned herself the very rare superfecta of the CMA and ACM Album for the Year, the Best Country Album Grammy, and all-genre Grammy Album of the Year.

But ever since hitting that high water mark, something has been missing from the Kacey Musgraves experience, and it’s been Kacey Musgraves. It’s also been Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, who were instrumental to Musgraves finding her place. Meanwhile, the constant in Kacey’s descent has been producers and co-writers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuck.

2021’s Star-Crossed felt sedated, aloof, and directionless, both sonically and lyrically. Where Musgraves had all sorts of momentum coming off Golden Hour, Star-Crossed fell flat even with certain critics. The production was muddy—not exactly electronica, but not really country or rootsy either. And the songs didn’t really say much, even though it was the boldness of Musgraves that had made her so interesting before.

Her new album Deeper Well might have a few more memorable songs and mark a return to a more organic sound for Musgraves, but that “something’s missing” feeling persists. Couched by some as a return to her country roots ahead of its release, the album is definitely more rootsy, but it’s not really country at all. Instead, Deeper Well has a sort of a traditional folk disposition, but with a dash of contemporary accents, like the doubling of Kacey’s vocal signal, which gives it a distinctly digital feel that some ears will find distasteful.

Deeper Well seems to be marked by boredom. Like a millionaire sitting in a minimally-furnished postmodern house feeling entirely uninspired and unfulfilled, Musgraves broods and muses over inanities in a way that feels detached and listless. Perhaps that is what Musgraves was going for, but it doesn’t really make for great entertainment value. It communicates a listless feeling to the audience as well. When she sings the song “Lonely Millionaire,” it feels less like a cautionary tale, and more autobiographical.

Success may have not been healthy for Kacey’s creativity, while the White woman energy on Deeper Well is also quite pronounced, from talk of astrological signs and dark energy, to takers and givers. This is country music as scented candles and avocado toast. It’s the shirking of conventional religion, but the adoption of nondescript “spirituality” that comes across as trite and predictable—the polar opposite of the early Kacey Musgraves experience.

But make no mistake about it, Deeper Well also feels like a step in the right direction, if only because Star-Crossed felt like such a wrong one. The more organic, acoustic approach fits Kacey’s disposition better. It also fits the disposition of these songs much better than the failed experiments of Star-Crossed, while the songs overall also feel a bit more inspired and developed compared to the previous album.

“The Architect” finds an interesting manner in which to weave Musgraves’ muses into an entertaining and thought-provoking exercise. “Anime Eyes” is built from an interesting idea, and though it may get a little too silly for some during the song’s crescendo, it also gives the album both a needed shot of energy, as well as a spark of whimsy that has always been at the heart of Kacey’s appeal.

Looking through the liner notes of Kacey’s albums, it’s striking how obvious the issue is with her music. As Saving Country Music asserted with the award-winning Golden Hour, the album had some excellent songs (“Butterflies,” “Space Cowboy,” “Rainbow,” “High Horse”), but this masked a subpar album overall. When you look through the credits, these were the four songs that the combination of producers/songwriters Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuck were not involved in writing.

In an indisputable manner, Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuck have been the kiss of death for Kacey Musgraves music. On Star-Crossed, all the tracks were Daniel Tashian/Ian Fitchuck co-write/producer collaborations, and the release fizzled. And on Deeper Well, arguably the greatest track, and the one with the most organic plays is “The Architect,” which is the track Musgraves wrote with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne as opposed to Tashian/Fitchuck.

This prolonged partnership with Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuck has been bad for Kacey Musgraves, who is one of the most critically important characters in modern mainstream country that’s been coasting off the quality songs from Golden Hour for six years now. At this point, it feels like we’re only paying attention to this music because it’s Kacey Musgraves, while the projects of lesser-known performers with much more promise and power in their songs get overlooked.

Deeper Well is still more of a positive. But it feels like Kacey Musgraves and everyone else needs to admit that a big part of the magic behind Musgraves was Shane McAnally. No artist should make the same album twice. But that’s kind of what Musgraves, Tashian, and Fitchuck have done with Deeper Well. The kitschy era of Spacey Kacey may be gone for good. But it still feels like Musgraves could do so much better by either going back, or moving on from the Tashian/Fitchuck era.


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