In the first song on Golden Hour, "Slow Burn," Kacey Musgraves sets her intention not only for her (love) life but for how this listening session will play out. The track, with it's wide open musical spaces, high-tuned lead guitar, and slowed down rhythm pair with her drawl and drawn-out delivery to create a calm. This is Musgraves at her most confident.
Golden Hour was inspired by the end of her previous long-term relationship and meeting the man who is her now husband. Many of the songs, inflected with what some call a disco-infused sound, are about the build of their relationship. But that language is worth examining, because it points back to a history of words we use to describe feminine in music, and putting the feminine at the forefront is absolutely what Musgraves is doing with this album.
While there are disco elements in several of her songs, from the louder volume on the high-hat and the tuning of the guitars and banjos above her vocal range to even the use of vocoders in an unexpected salute to disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder, which all work to create a more "girly" sound, the idea is most prominent in the track "High Horse." Putting it into historical context, the fight between rock and disco in the '70s was a struggle between traditionally masculine music, performed and sung by and large by men for men, and dance music that originated in gay clubs and included scores of female vocalists making a more inclusive sound that used non-traditional instruments and eschewed the guitar. So, among the other moves Musgraves has made to carve out her own idea of what modern country music is/what a modern country star does (like opening for Harry Styles on his U.S. tour and eschewing the existing model of kissing up to country stations to garner airplay), this is a political move wrapped up in a musical context. A quick look at literally any chart will show you that country radio barely plays songs by women. It's a known problem in developing a career as a female artist, because radio is still where fans of the genre go to hear new music. Musgraves leans into the idea that she's not going to do what anyone tells her by making the music even more feminine. With an album like this, she's sending the message to the establishment that she doesn't care what the gatekeepers want, either because she no longer feels she needs them or she outright thinks they're wrong. Put succinctly: it's the decision of a bad ass, rebellious female artist.
To be clear: this album isn't a shift for Musgraves towards pop, despite integrating a few more pop production tricks. "Wonder Woman," particularly, is rife with them but the song sticks to a country story-telling format and incorporates traditional instruments like acoustic guitar alongside the synths. The track that proceeds it, "Velvet Elvis," is even more traditionally country, despite featuring a vibraphone riff, and was the sort of song I instantly felt I knew all the words to. If anything, Golden Hour simply musically explores an aesthetic Musgraves as played with in her clothing, that Branson by way of Vegas in a gold Nudie suit thing she loves. It's a marriage of old fashioned jingle-jangle with sequins and short skirts.
As the album winds down, Musgraves starts singing affirmations. In "Golden Hour" and "Rainbow," the final two tracks, she languidly sings about how everything is going to be alright. It's almost like a lullaby, with the layered vocal harmonies, that ushers you gently back out of her world. If you miss being in the Golden Hour, you can just hit play again.
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