This week Kacey Musgrave’s album, Golden Hour, was named album of the year – and best country album – at the Grammys, and she also won awards for best country solo performance (for Butterflies) and best country song (for Space Cowboy).
That is no small feat. Not when you consider that country radio and TV in America mostly didn’t play her because the album was considered extremely pop, pop radio was uncertain because she was historically a country artist, and people whose job it is to label things were confused by what to do with her.
(Does that sound like what happened with Kylie Minogue’s “country” album, Golden, to you? Well, yes.)
Which pretty much sums up the silos in which music is processed in the industry, which is nothing like how it is consumed in the real world where people are more likely to ask “do I like it?” than “what genre is it?”.
In Australia, where she will be touring in a few months – see dates at the bottom - she is even less known, though hardly unappreciated. Not helped by the fact that while Australian radio and TV is not as stratified as the USA, it is considerably more narrow and ignorant overall.
So that seems like a good reason to take an unusually short trip back in Wind Back Wednesday to April last year and a review of Golden Hour. Find out what the Grammys saw, and what some of us will see on that coming tour.
Golden Hour (Universal)
Christine McVie did not write country songs, ostensibly; Kacey Musgraves is a country artist, ostensibly. The already blurry lines between these statements of “fact” are erased fairly early on in this creamy, slow-to-mid-tempo collection of often personal (rather than storytelling) songs whose territory is pop music in several of its timeless incarnations.
The most obvious blurred-to-obliterated line is within Lonely Weekend where Musgraves captures the soft cushioning and wishful dreaming of golden age Fleetwood Mac as if to the Sound City born.
With a melody as elegant as silk, the piano and drums are presented in velvet wrapping, the backing vocals in the chorus are shimmery stacks of voices, the rhythm is not so much cruise as floating on your back in the shallows mode, and the solo eschews (already barely intrusive) guitar for what may well be lightly stroked vibraphone.
Butterflies may come with a tad more Colbie Caillat, the very brief Mother may well have been written while on LSD (according to Musgraves) – although it clearly was a very mellow trip - and the title track and especially High Horse may come with a light danceable pop brush of Swing Out Sister aiming for Sade, but the spiritual centre remains Ms McVie.
Not just the ‘70s either, with the droll Velvet Elvis, the echoey mini-drama Space Cowboy and the glossy Wonder Woman wearing their debts to the Mac’s third decade of crafted fare from the likes of Tango In The Night, comfortably, proudly even. (Sometimes too comfortably with Happy & Sad so innocuous as to remind you how the 1980s didn’t just disappear into ephemera but had to be euthanised for its own good.)
In any other time this album would be called soft rock, that amalgam of melody, easy listening grooves and backing bands of men with too much facial and body hair. It is most certainly pop as we have known it when made for adults rather than teens: from Elton John-like quiet balladry on Rainbow, and low-key drama in Space Cowboy to the fact that if you were to take out the fleeting banjo in Oh, What A World and just go with the whispering song that floats on sexy boy air, and begins and ends with vocoder, you would end up nearer Paris than Nashville.
That it might be called country now says as much about the wackiness of labels as it does the decision by a confident artist four albums into her major label career – and seven altogether - to go where it suits her.
As much as the easy striding into the middle of modern music’s Venn diagram feels natural, there’s a noticeable reduction in Musgraves’ penchant for sharp lines about sometimes decadent living. The stories here become more familiar, about her in a generic sense in that they are filled with personal pronouns rather than because they regularly offer revelations or insights.
Does that matter? It’s not like clichés such as those in Space Cowboys are risible, even if their tread feels well worn. And how many stories about her toking on some weed do I need to feel “connected”?
In truth I suspect I may have stuck on that aspect to explain to myself why, as impressive as this album is in its execution – and as much as I share Musgrave’s fondness for the former Christine Perfect – Golden Hour leaves me warm but not gripped, admiring but not moved.
Kacey Musgraves will play The Tivoli, Brisbane, May 10; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, May 12; Palais Theatre, Melbourne, May 14; Auckland Town Hall, May 17.