Born in Texas, a year before fellow country star Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves has followed a markedly different musical path. Swift is the golden girl, whose albums go to number one, even after she’s transitioned to pop, while Musgraves is more the outsider, whose grandmother cried when she pierced her nose. There are parallels between the pair – both are uncluttered and effective songwriters, and neither is a powerhouse vocalist, with understated and gently expressive voices.
Musgraves has gained attention for her penchant for combining liberal lyrics, baiting the American South, with a traditional musical approach. Her early songs like ‘Merry Go Round’ and ‘Follow Your Arrow’ were notable for their references to girls kissing girls and marijuana. But behind the provocative lyrics, there’s a writer who’s grounded in the work of respected songsmiths like John Prine and Willie Nelson. Musgraves also has an endearing air of kitsch around her – her songs often revolve around goofy puns, while she’s known for stage props like neon cacti.
Terminology like debut album and early songs ignores the fact that Musgraves released three albums of demos while in her teens, but they’ve largely been written out of her history – her discography effectively begins with 2013’s excellently titled Same Trailer Different Park.
Kacey Musgraves Album Reviews
Same Trailer Different Park
After three self-released albums as a teenager, Same Trailer Different Park is Musgraves’ major-label debut. It may not be her best, but it established her signature style, a traditional country sound with lyrics that challenge Southern norms. Songs like ‘Merry Go ’round’ and ‘Follow Your Arrow’ question life in the south – the former, the album’s lead single, opens with the couplet “If you ain’t got two kids by 21/ You’re probably gonna die alone/ At least that’s what tradition told you.”
For all her rabble-rousing and establishment challenging, Musgraves is a very good songwriter and there are plenty of terrific songs, although I always prefer Musgraves in introspective mode. Songs like the pretty ‘Dandelion’ and the resignation of ‘It Is What It Is’ are my favourites, although ‘Merry Go ’round’ is also pretty and has its share of self-reflection (“just like dust we settle in this town”). Of the more upbeat material, Musgraves is especially memorable on the puns of ‘Blowin’ Smoke’ and at her most outspoken on ‘Follow Your Arrow’.
Musgraves has delivered more musically satisfying material, but Same Trailer Different Park captures her at her most outspoken, and it’s likely to be what she’ll be remembered for.
Pageant Material isn’t a whole lot different from Musgrave’s debut, with the same combination of strait-laced country music and provocative lyrics. If anything it’s even more traditional musically – Musgraves recorded it in the historic RCA Studio A in Nashville. She re-uses the same production and co-writing team, with singer-songwriters like Luke Laird and Shane McAnally contributing.
The lack of novelty means that the record stands or falls on the strength of the songs. It’s the more introspective material that succeeds – the upbeat songs like ‘Family Is Family’ and ‘Biscuits’ are routine musically and are only interesting for Musgrave’s wordplay and charm. On the other hand, slower fare like ‘Die Fun’, ‘Miserable’ and ‘Late To The Party’ give her a way forward, more personal songs that stand up to repeated listening.
There’s good song-writing on Pageant Material, but it feels like an inferior sequel to Same Trailer Different Park.
A Very Kacey Christmas
Never heard this, although Musgraves’ blend of tradition and irreverence has me somewhat curious….
Golden Hour profiles a newly married Musgraves, blissed out and delivering a smooth, acoustic set that could have originated in Laurel Canyon in the 1970s. The lyrics are still the focus for Musgraves. She clearly loves metaphors, and if there’s the occasional over-cooked wordplay – “go ahead and have your space….cowboy” is the punchline of one of the album’s singles – generally, it’s an honest, likeable collection where Musgraves’ every-woman voice is instantly relate-able, gently describing her feelings.
The best songs are personal and low key – opener ‘Slow Burn’ is essentially a series of thematically connected stoned ramblings (“good in a glass/good on green”) but Musgraves is able to sell it with her low key vocal. The minutiae and smooth retro flutes of the standout track ‘Lonely Weekend’ recall Josh Rouse’s work, but it’s the work of a talented lyricist, an adult sifting through their different emotions.
Of those emotions love is the defining theme on Golden Hour – the tagline of “then there is you” at the end of the chorus of “Oh what a world” is so natural that it’s thoroughly believable. ‘Love Is A Wild Thing’ is a highlight, with its gentle melodies and harmonies and its affirmation of love summing up the album’s modus operandi. ‘High Horse’ adds a disco beat and it’s a nice change of pace from the smooth, country-tinged sound. As well as intimate and personal lyrics, Musgraves can also do light-hearted – ‘Velvet Elvis’ throws in some silly metaphors, and the affectionate and respectful objectification of a male lover is strangely unfamiliar territory in pop music.
Musgraves isn’t doing anything new musically on Golden Hour – it’s her ability to turn a creative phrase and sell it with her intimate, understated vocals, backed by lush and beautiful textures, that’s the album’s appeal. But inspired by love, Musgraves delivers some terrific songs on Golden Hour, and it feels so artless that it’s thoroughly believable and relatable.
Kacey Musgraves became a star with Golden Hour. Its sunkissed and mildly psychedelic sound, with its songs of falling in love, won Musgraves an album of the year Grammy and set expectations sky-high for the follow-up. As the title indicates, Star-Crossed is a divorce album. Musgraves dissects her failed marriage from different angles. She’s strident and dismissive on ‘Breadwinner’ but much more conflicted on the outstanding ‘Hookup Scene’ where she sings “It’s a chapter that ain’t coming back/I could have learned to love it more”.
The arrangements are sometimes tentative, but that suits Musgraves’ own confusion on the record – as she sings on ‘Justified’, “healing doesn’t happen in a straight line.” Crucially, though, Star-Crossed is filled with memorable melodies delivered in Musgraves’ sweet voice, making it one of the year’s strongest records.
The acoustic ‘Hookup Scene’ is one of the few songs that would have fitted in comfortably on Musgraves’ earlier country records. Many of these songs feel deconstructed – ‘There Is A Light’ combines virtuoso flute soloing with a dance beat, and it’s kitsch but catchy. There are plenty of memorable choruses like ‘Cherry Blossom’ and ‘Breadwinner’, and the Spanish conclusion on ‘Gracias A La Vida’ is a dignified ending.
Star-Crossed has only enjoyed a lukewarm critical reception, a sometimes tentative follow-up to the success of Golden Hour, but it’s still an excellent record.
Ten Favourite Kacey Musgraves Songs
Love Is A Wild Thing
Oh, What A World
There Is A Light
Merry Go ’round
Late to the Party
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