If Kacey Musgraves did not exist, someone would have to invent her. On her first two major-label albums, the Texas singer/songwriter checked all the right boxes — musically traditional enough for old-school country fans, lyrically progressive enough for bro-country haters, versatile enough to open for Willie Nelson one minute and Katy Perry the next — without ever coming across as anything but her own genuine, charming self. Not since Taylor Swift has a country star seemed so primed for pop stardom. But rather than reach for that brass ring with “Golden Hour,” Musgraves takes a step sideways with a dreamy, blissful album of love songs unlike anything she’s ever recorded.
Save for the occasional banjo and the mild twang in Musgraves’s voice, “Golden Hour” largely forgoes the classic country signifiers of her past work. In their place are mellow acoustic guitars and airy synthesizers that give the record a serene, almost adult-contemporary lightness. Even the more adventurous production choices, like the vocoder refrain on “Oh, What a World” and the disco-lite pulse of “High Horse,” blend naturally into Musgraves’s tranquil headspace. An album this endlessly chill might get boring in a less talented songwriter’s hands, but Musgraves never fails to draw listeners into her reverie.
If “Golden Hour” sounds like the work of someone who recently fell in love and got married, that’s because it is and she has. Every gorgeous melody feels infused with Musgraves’s affection for her partner, and though she occasionally lapses into doe-eyed cliché, for the most part romance hasn’t dulled her lyrical edge. If anything, it’s helped her relax a bit; while the old Musgraves would have smothered “Velvet Elvis” in wink-nudge pun-iness, now she’s comfortable letting the endearingly goofy conceit of the song sell itself. Elsewhere, “Happy & Sad” articulates Musgraves’s fear that nothing this good can last with the same acuity with which she once chronicled life as a small-town nonconformist.
Musgraves wrote “Butterflies,” the most heart-meltingly beautiful love song on an album full of them, a mere week after meeting her future husband. That kind of inspiration can’t be faked, and “Golden Hour” has so many similarly enchanting moments it practically glows. It takes courage for someone in Musgraves’s position to make an album this intimately personal, but it’s hard to imagine an artist as headstrong as her wanting it any other way. As she puts it in the album’s first song and mission statement, “I’m alright with a slow burn.”Terence Cawley can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley.