The advance press around the sensational Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves’ first album of original material since 2015’s Pageant Material, is painting Golden Hour as “too gutsy” to be a country album--two things that are apparently mutually exclusive--and not even country at all. It’s a tempting thesis--Musgraves, after all, does not make music that sounds like Florida Georgia Line, and she’s been on more Fader covers than RS Country covers--but in a world where women country singers are being virtually shut out of radio, drawing a weird line around Golden Hour and the rest of the genre is doing to Musgraves the same disservice the sexist country radio programmers have been dealing women artists like Brandy Clark and Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley and Maren Morris. It’s also creating a very narrow bubble of what is and isn’t country; past generations of country stars got to make disco songs without being cast as apart from the genre itself.
And, furthermore, it’s taking a pretty liberal reading of Golden Hour itself. Sure, Golden Hour does lean way left of Pageant Material, and sure, the disco-fied (and total banger) “Golden Hour” probably reads as non-country to people who have never heard “Islands in the Stream”, and “Oh What A World” has a vocoder outro that is basically Daft Punk-lite. But it’s hard to imagine a world where an album with a song as resolute, perfect, so clearly country as “Space Cowboy” somehow gets painted as being apart from the genre. This is a country LP through and through; it’s assured, beautiful, fun, and features some of the tightest songwriting on any album out in 2018.
Golden Hour is Musgraves’ strongest album, a real feat considering 2013’s Same Trailer, Different Park being an influential classic that opened up whole lanes for the likes of Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini. Musgraves’ songwriting, which is packed with similes and #facts about being a 20-something navigating modern existence, has been the secret sauce in making her one of the most compelling country artists out. But where her past albums hinged on Musgraves’ descriptions of being different in a small town, Golden Hour is her marriage album, written and recorded before and after a whirlwind romance and marriage with country singer Ruston Kelly. Golden Hour charts a relationship from the breakup (album highlight “Space Cowboy,” and the disco-fied “High Horse”), to being single and lonely on a couch (the snappy “Lonely Weekend,” with its depictions of phone-based FOMO) to the early brushes of attraction (the floating “Butterflies”) and young love (the mellifluous “Love Is A Wild Thing”). She tops off the arc with the title track, a dazzling song about the light a relationship brings to the darkness of life. If there was ever a good endorsement for boo-ing up in 2018, this album is it.
It’s also apparently Musgraves’ LSD album, which isn’t something you’d necessarily ever expect to hear, but when it leads to songs like the raw, straight-forward “Mother”--a song fragment about missing her mom, and her mom missing her mom that Musgraves wrote in 15 minutes--it’s maybe something you could recommend for most songwriters. The LSD also goes on to explain the interstellar, planetary motifs here, from “Space Cowboy” to “Golden Hour” to “Rainbow.” It also maybe explains the absurdly well-written, and awesomely absurd “Velvet Elvis,” which finds Musgraves wanting to treat her new love like the kitschy paintings dotting thrift stores across middle America.
Golden Hour is going to draw a lot more hand-wringing from country purists over its relative country-ness, and that will only get worse if Golden Hour actually is the pop breakthrough album Musgraves has had in her chamber since she first left the trailer park on her 2013 album. But she’ll have done it on her own terms, writing the best music of her career and making country music that refuses to be boxed in by what is expected. This is the best country album of 2018, and I’m not sure what else could come along and top it.