Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Kacey Musgraves Deeper Well

MCA Nashville/Interscope
MCA Nashville/Interscope

Lots of popular narratives can emerge from a night of live television, but those narratives will not necessarily have anything to do with reality. For instance, let’s discuss the idea that Taylor Swift stole Kacey Musgraves’ thunder. During the Grammy Awards a few weeks ago, a prettily photographed commercial teased the existence of a new album from Musgraves. Not long after, Taylor Swift, making an acceptance speech for some award that’s not worth remembering, announced a new album of her own. You can see why people would spin stories about Swift’s announcement dunking on Musgraves’ rollout. But when you actually listen to Deeper Well, the new album that Musgraves teased that night, it becomes clear that Musgraves had no thunder to steal. When Deeper Well is playing, thunder is the furthest thing from my mind.

Kacey Musgraves and Taylor Swift have certain things in common. Both started out working in the Nashville country mines, and both almost immediately found and nurtured audiences outside of that ecosystem. Both moved in mainstream directions, causing certain people to wonder if they’d ever been country in the first place. Both earned widespread acclaim, winning Album Of The Year trophies and #1 pop hits. (Kacey Musgraves has one of each. Taylor Swift has many, many more.) But that’s where the connections end. Taylor Swift is a global pop phenomenon whose mere presence swallows up the galaxy. Kacey Musgraves is a nice, pretty lady who makes nice, pretty music that a lot of people like. Deeper Well isn’t going to change that, and that’s a good thing.

In the recent past, Kacey Musgraves seemed like she might enter Taylor Swift airspace, or at least like she wanted to enter Taylor Swift airspace. In 2018, she followed two frisky, canny, generally excellent mainstream country records with an even better album called Golden Hour. Musgraves was deeply in love, and that feeling was too big to be contained by the kind of music that she’d been making. So she looked elsewhere, swirling country and pop and disco and psychedelia into one dazed, beautiful whole. I was a fan before Golden Hour, but that album knocked me on my ass. Lots of people felt that way, and Musgraves won Album Of The Year notices from the Grammy voting body and from this website — the only time that’s ever happened.

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After Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves had a blank check, and she spent it. Her follow-up record star-crossed was a bleak divorce meditation, inspired by the end of the same relationship that had animated Golden Hour. (An artist’s personal life is that artist’s personal life, but some of the chilly reception for star-crossed was probably similar to the one that people felt when they realized that all the non-Ripley characters were killed in the Alien 3 opening credits.) Musgraves turned the star-crossed release into a multi-media event, with a Lemonade-style streaming-service visual-album component and a tastefully naked SNL performance. But the album just didn’t have that magic, and it landed with a relative thud.

Deeper Well, arriving three years after star-crossed, feels a bit like the time-honored back-to-basics move, but that old story is a little too limited for what Kacey Musgraves does on this new record. The back-to-basics lane was available to Musgraves. She’s got plenty of fans in the new wave of mega-popular country-folk singer-songwriters, and that’s how she got her first and only #1 hit. Last year, exploding-comet superstar Zach Bryan brought Musgraves in to co-write and sing the duet “I Remember Everything.” The song is ragged and melodramatic, and it struck a chord. “I Remember Everything” wasn’t properly released as a single, but it was the Zach Bryan track that attracted the most attention, and it debuted atop the Hot 100. Six months later, it’s still sitting in the top 10. Noah Kahan, another fast-rising phenom, invited Musgraves to sing on a new version of one of his own songs. She’s entirely welcome within their world, but she’s more interested in her own. Again, that’s a good thing.

Kacey Musgraves recorded Deeper Well at New York’s storied Electric Lady studios, and she did just about everything with Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, her two main collaborators on both Golden Hour and star-crossed. Tashian and Fitchuk co-produced every track on Deeper Well with Musgraves, and the three of them co-wrote 13 of the album’s 14 tracks. (Musgraves co-wrote “The Architect,” maybe the album’s most cleverly constructed song, with longtime Nashville pros Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne.) The title track and lead single is no red herring. It’s quiet and small and pretty, with lyrics about reevaluating things and trying to understand your changing place in the world. The song nods in the direction of country, but it has more to do with soft-sigh adult-contempo folk. For the most part, that’s the Kacey Musgraves that we get on Deeper Well.

Just about everything on Deeper Well comes from the trio of Kacey Musgraves, Daniel Tashian, and Ian Fitchuk. When you look at the album’s credits, you’ll see Tashian and Fitchuk’s names again and again. Those guys didn’t just co-produce and co-write; they also played guitar, synth, bass, drums, banjo, organ, ukulele, and just about anything else that needed playing. (They didn’t play the strings. They brought in other people to do that.) It’s easy to hear Deeper Well as the product of these three people, who all know and trust each other completely, holing up in the studio and following their collective muse. The record moves away from the stagey pop gestures of star-crossed, but it never takes Musgraves out of her comfort zone. It sounds like one long, contented exhalation, and that’s both its strength and its weakness.

If you thought “Deeper Well” sounded boring, then nothing on the album will convince you otherwise. The album feels small and slightly constrained. Kacey Musgraves doesn’t take any big swings on Deeper Well. The disco flirtations of her last two records are gone. There are other genre experiments, but they’re softer and quieter. (I was shocked to read the credits and see that Atlanta rapper JID had a songwriting credit on “Lonely Millionaire,” but that song really is pretty much a remake of his track “Kody Blu 31.” It still sounds just like a Kacey Musgraves song, though. She’s not trying to rap or anything.) When Musgraves plays around the the formula, she usually does it in familiar ways. Opening track “Cardinal,” for instance, starts off with chiming “California Dreaming”-style folk-rock guitars, but that sound isn’t exactly a huge leap for her, while the blurry and vocoderized backing vocals on “Anime Eyes” resemble the ones that she used on “Oh, What A World” six years ago.

Deeper Well isn’t a new-love record like Golden Hour, though it has plenty of love songs. It isn’t a breakup record like star-crossed, either, even though there’s plenty of post-breakup ruminating. Instead, the album expands on the loose philosophical moves of both of those albums. Kacey Musgraves no longer has any interest in the classic country storytelling of her first two LPs. She’s into capturing the things happening inside her brain.

The title-track line that caught the most attention was the one about how Musgraves isn’t wake-and-baking anymore, but she still writes most of Deeper Well from a place of acid-fried contemplation. On “Cardinal,” she keeps seeing the titular bird and wondering if it’s a late friend sending her messages from the great beyond. On “The Architect,” she asks questions of her creator — “Sometimes I look in the mirror and wish I could make a request/ Could I pray it away? Am I shapeable clay? Or is this as good as it gets?” — before wondering if that creator even exists. “Anime Eyes” uses far-out imagery to capture the feeling of new love: “Made it through the trees to see a Miyazaki sky/ Now it’s you and me, and we’re shining.” (Musgraves recently played a voice role in a Miyazaki movie dub, but it was Goro Miyazaki, and nobody liked the computer-animated Earwig And The Witch. That’s not her fault, though.)

Occasionally, Kacey Musgraves’ lyrical musings melt into dorm-room pablum. “Sway,” about wishing she could bend like a palm tree in a storm, feels a little trite, and so does the “you’ve got dark energy” bit from the title track. Most of the time, though, I hear real conversational grace in her Deeper Well lyrics. “Too Good To Be True” captures an image of domestic bliss in just a few words — “Made some breakfast, made some love/ This is what dreams are made of/ On a cloudy Monday morning” — before she finds herself pleading for that bliss to be real, rather than an illusion. “Dinner With Friends,” meanwhile, is just a list of Kacey Musgraves’ favorite things, and she indicates her political position as a tossed-off aside: “My home state of Texas/ The sky there, the horses and dogs/ But none of their laws.” Those are some of the things that Kacey Musgraves will miss when she’s dead, and when you realize that, it adds a whole lot of weight to a song that might otherwise feel fluffy and light.

Musgraves opens “Deeper Well” by singing that her Saturn has returned, and that was the line that she used to announce the new album. I don’t really understand this stuff, but when a person goes through that Saturn’s return, doesn’t it usually happen before their 30th birthday? Kacey Musgraves is 35. Her Saturn returned a while ago. Deeper Well works as a portrait of the moment that you realize you’re getting older. You start losing people, and you think about death more and more often — not in a morbid way, necessarily, but as a fast-approaching inevitability.

Deeper Well goes down awfully easily. The album’s 42 minutes slide by without much friction, and the sound can blend into the background without doing much to grab your attention. If you’re not already invested in Kacey Musgraves, Deeper Well won’t do much to change your mind. The album doesn’t have any of the immediate ambition of the last two. If you want it to be a smooth and pretty ride, that’s what it’ll be. But the album has moments of wisdom and heaviness, and those moments don’t necessarily reveal themselves on first listen. Deeper Well is a classic grower. Some people may find it slight, but the album is pleasant company, and certain moments might sneak up and ambush you out of nowhere.

Taylor Swift did not steal Kacey Musgraves’ thunder because the two of them are working on completely different planes of existence. They are not competitors, and Kacey Musgraves is not trying to play the same stadiums as Swift. Maybe that’s where people once wanted her to be, but Deeper Well should correct those assumptions. Musgraves is on her own journey, and if Deeper Well doesn’t bring her to her destination, then it’s an awfully scenic rest stop along the way.

Deeper Well is out 3/15 on Interscope/MCA Nashville.

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