On her first two albums, Kacey Musgraves established herself as one of the most gifted and adventurous singer-songwriters in country. On Golden Hour, out this Friday, the following of her arrow has fully commenced. It’s her best release yet, one that gracefully transcends country while exploring musical pastures as wide-open as the plains of her native Texas.
Golden Hour is not one of those kitchen-sink country albums, though. It’s an album with a clear sonic point of view, an aesthetic all its own. These songs don’t interact with other genres in the garish way we’ve come to expect from crossover hits like Big & Rich’s “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)” or Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise.” Even compared to fairly intuitive pop-country hybrids like Taylor Swift’s Red-era hits or the Sam Hunt discography, Musgraves’ vision feels natural — richly conceived and fully synthesized. Musgraves recorded the album “above a horse stable at Sheryl Crow’s house,” and that makes a lot of sense given the way Crow’s own music effortlessly straddled genre lines.
Golden Hour sounds like the time of day it’s named for, that late-afternoon moment before sunset when photographers are able to make their subjects look like a mirage. The album exists in that dream space, and it convenes its various sounds and textures cohere with a sort of dream logic: of course these go together. There are moments of more distinct departure — the disco rambler “High Horse,” the Daft Punk vocoders that initiate “Oh, What A World,” the way opener “Slow Burn” captures the hushed intimacy of indie troubadours like Sufjan Stevens — but the lot of it gleams and ripples like light reflecting off the surface of water.
The comfortable, confident songcraft extends to Musgraves’ lyrics, which continue to mirror her music’s balance of reverence for and subversion of old country tropes. With a single line on “Slow Burn,” for instance, she tells an entire story, Hemingway style: “Texas is hot/ I can be cold/ Grandma cried when I pierced my nose.” (As Jewly Hight points out, the end of that lyric is borrowed from an earlier Musgraves composition known as “Burn One With John Prine,” but here it’s repurposed with a note of sober self-awareness.) Or consider the glory of “Space Cowboy,” on which matches weepy galactic balladry with this turn of phrase: “You can have your space, cowboy/ I ain’t gonna fence you in.”
The album is full of moments like those, on which her cleverness amplifies the aching beauty rather than obscuring it. Maybe it’s because Musgraves’ personal life is in a placid place right now — she married the singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly last fall — but she’s never sounded less adversarial. She’s developed a reputation for rocking the boat, but Golden Hour seems less interested in defying country’s mainstream and more focused on depicting her personal ethos in all its splendor. It’s a major achievement, and now that it’s available to hear, you should gallop over to NPR and do so.
Golden Hour is out 3/30 on MCA Nashville.