Regardless of how you feel about Kacey Musgraves, her music, her politics, or the ideologies she espouses, she symbolizes nothing short of a victory in the effort to save country music. To have a major label artist release an album like Pageant Material, full of traditional country leanings and songwriter-based material, is a sizable leap forward for the genre. And this is not just from some 2nd or 3rd-tier star who is destined to be on the wrong side of seeing the attention she deserves come to fruition. Forget about mainstream country radio, Kacey Musgraves is a perrenial Female Vocalist of the Year candidate now, and a former winner for Album of the Year and Song of the Year from the industry’s highest institutions.
Yet she’s still solidly an outsider, and an underdog, and nowhere does Kacey exemplify that more than in the semi-protest song “Good ‘Ol Boys Club.” With confidence and grace, she espouses her desire to not be the popular cash cow of country music, but to be herself and remain content with whatever that approach reaps. In “Pageant Material,” she speaks about her inability to be fake on camera and play the game. “I wish I could, but I just can’t wear a smile when a smile ain’t what I’m feeling,” she says, yet her words about never being good enough to wear the sash have already been disproved. In an industry where blockbusters reign, Kacey Musgraves has shown that quality can still win the popularity contests.
Where Kacey’s debut major label album Same Trailer, Different Park was released when she still very much was an unknown quantity, now the eyes of the music industry are squarely upon her, and not just in country. A favorite of Northeast media elites who don’t pay attention to country music unless they can piggy back a professing of their political ideologies through it—they are already singing the praises of this album to the roof. Those that criticize Kacey’s politics may be a little disappointed at the lack of red meat she throws them in Pageant Material. Though there’s certainly the quippy remarks about some of the stuffy old outdated values still alive in the recesses of the South, there’s nowhere near the amount of inferences to homosexuality, marijuana, or other subjects that straddle the cultural divide that there were on her freshman effort.
But still you get this sense of judgement coming from Kacey that makes for an uncomfortable listen in places. Musgraves loves to expound on how we should all keep our noses out of everyone else’s business, but then feels inclined to stick her nose in the business of others with a song like “Miserable.” Though Kacey loves to foil the little foibles about Southern small town living, she also borrows heavily from that culture in the kitschy and traditional motif of her music. She’s a strange bird, which may not be a bad thing, but the contradictions can sometimes be confounding, and corrosive to her likability.
One big concern heading into this release was if we would hear the same old approach to 13 new songs—something that crept up as an issue when Musgraves released “Biscuits” and “Family is Family” ahead of the album. Very similar to each other, and very similar to previous material, these songs seemed to hint to the insular songwriting environment that have formed around the 26-year-old. It’s this Musgraves, Luke Laird, Josh Osborne, Shane McAnally, Brandy Clark super-fecta of songwriters that seems to have found their groove and formula, and fear veering too far away from it. We knew the full album would offer more variety, and now after listening to it, “Biscuits” and “Family is Family” might be the worst formulaic offenders. But still, where a song like “Somebody to Love” would be excellent standing alone, it’s similarity to other Musgraves material is palpable, and puts a damper on its impact, however slight. And “This Town” relies on Musgraves’ oft-used small town disillusionment tactic.
But Pageant Material remains an album that is only fair to characterize as well-written, and one that is underwritten by a traditional country approach throughout. Where Same Trailer, Different Park had to be a little more calculated and pragmatic, sneaking its traditional leanings between the lines, certain sections of Pageant Material are some of the most traditional-sounding material we’ve heard from a top tier star in memory. Steel guitar and fiddle are not shy in the mix at all, and neither are the waltz-timed songs. “Traditional” may not even be the right word here. It’s more neo-traditional, meaning reaching back to the 50’s and 60’s instead of the 70’s and early 80’s. Kacey Musgraves doubles down on her kitschy, thrift store approach on this record as something more than just pagentry or posturing.
And there’s a few songs that are quite surprising, and venture well out of Kacey’s comfort zone. “Late to the Party” was a little unexpected, and despite it’s laid back, acoustic, and country-ish production, it captures more of a modernist, almost R&B sentiment that would be in alignment with the current mainstream country trends. “Die Fun” my be the most hard-to-read and polarizing track on the record. Without looking at the liner notes, you might think it was a songwriting collaboration with Musgraves’ good friend Katy Perry in the way it trivializes a life of purpose and promotes a party lifestyle that on the surface would be a polar opposite to Kacey’s general themes. A bit of sarcasm I suppose—or not. But with a pop-ish melody, don’t be surprised if it ends up as a single.
A song that should end up as a single is “Dime Store Cowboy.” Kacey Musgraves is a lyrical writer for the most part, not a melody writer. But “Dime Store Cowboy” gets the melody right.
Possibly Pageant Material‘s greatest contribution comes at the very end. The final song “Fine” might be Kacey’s greatest major label contribution yet. When listening to this song, I finally put my finger on what is missing in Kacey’s music that keeps it ascending from good to great. Her reliance of formula has already been well discussed, but it’s the lack of love songs, and songs that feel more personal that leaves some Musgraves listeners wanting. There too much “them,” and not enough “me.” Most of the great songs in country music weren’t written by a troika around a yellow notepad, they were written by an individual struggling through a very personal moment. That is what “Fine” captures, and in an aggressively-traditional waltz-beat style.
Then the album ends with a hidden duet with Willie Nelson on his song “Are You Sure.” It’s great to hear Willie in this context, but it sure is a shame the track is “hidden.” Assign your favorite conspiracy theory to that decision.
Pageant Material feels like the album Kacey Musgraves wanted to make. No compromise, no half measures, and though the formulaic approach holds it back, there is some growth evidenced in spurts, and some very good songs. Many will assign this “Album of the Year” accolades, some for social reasons beyond the music itself, and some because they are not privy to all the music most active country listeners are. But Pageant Material remains a solid effort, and delivered slightly above expectations.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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