Golden Hour is a contemporary country masterpiece. Less is often more, and Kacey Musgraves confidently acknowledges and asserts this fact throughout her immensely smart songwriting and her approach to music production.
Here’s how I would rank the album’s songs
1. Oh What A World (10)
2. Slow Burn (10)
3. Happy & Sad (9.5)
4. Butterflies (9.5)
5. Rainbow (9)
6. Space Cowboy (9)
7. Love is a Wild Thing (9)
8. Wonder Woman (9)
9. High Horse (8.5)
10. Golden Hour (8.5)
11. Mother (8)
12. Lonely Weekend (7.5)
13. Velvet Elvis (7)
Country music has never felt as liberal or as fresh as it does right now, and I feel we owe a lot of that success to Kacey Musgraves. The glamorous yet understated country queen was flying ever so slightly under the international radar, that is until the release of Golden Hour in 2019, a masterpiece of country music that earned her four Grammy awards, most importantly the famously divisive Album of The Year. But is Golden Hour musically watertight enough to justify its immense critical success?
One of Musgraves’ unique selling points is her liberal approach to politics; expressed primarily through her lyrics. She is a staunch supporter for the abolition of racism, misogyny and homophobia in addition to being pro-legalisation in regards to marijuana, and whilst this isn’t daring for say, a politician, it is somewhat risky territory due to the Country genre being notoriously known for its conservatism. The singer has already ruffled feathers in the ‘white and male’ dominated country world, with many ‘authentic’ country radio stations essentially boycotting her music. What they probably are afraid to accept is that there is something undeniably modern about Musgraves’ style and approach musically to a genre that can easily be seen as dated. Slow Burn sets the tone for Golden Hour exquisitely. The lyrics demonstrate her penchant for casual storytelling with a lot of heart: “born in a hurry, always late, haven’t been early since ‘88”, and musically the song is propelled forward using interesting timbres and harmonies that clearly have roots in the country genre but ultimately have evolved into something more current. The titular song Golden Hour reflects this signature style too, one that displays a beauty in not trying to do too much at once.
A lot of the success in Golden Hour is derived from the songstresses ability to use the music behind her lyrics to further evoke her storytelling craft. This methodology could easily become contrived and corny, yet Musgrave makes it seem completely effortless to the point where it is impossible and unnecessary to tell what came first – the lyrics or the music. Take Happy & Sad, perhaps the most twee outing on the album besides Velvet Elvis. I would be sad too if I had never heard of the word melancholy, yet rising and falling vocal lines sync perfectly with themes presented in the song. Similarly, High Horse has been described by a fellow writer as ‘the most non-country country song’; combining pop sensibilities with a parody-esque country style. Guitar twangs played as a sort of call and response over a disco beat somehow manage to musically mock someone who is “classic in the wrong way” – perhaps a dig at the aforementioned country critics?
Butterflies feels like a contemporary country staple, as a vast array of both subtle and obvious electronic effects are weaved throughout the song, offering something different to appreciate in each repeated play through. On the surface songs such as this one and Wonder Woman feel simple, and they are, but it is the little details that turn good songs into great songs. Ultimately these are what make Golden Hour an example of excellence in songwriting. As an incredibly gifted live instrumentalist Musgraves is not afraid to have exposed sections that require no lyrics, and tucked away throughout the album are moments such as an underrated piano solo after the bridge in Wonder Woman that just radiates light.
Arguably the best track on the album, Oh What A World marks a shift from casual and honest lyrical content to complex naturalist and impressionist themes. Impressionism in country music is not exactly new, as Jimmy Webb & Glen Campbell showed with the devastating yet iconic Wichita Lineman in as early as 1968, yet when Musgraves deftly deploys these themes throughout Space Cowboy, it feels just as important historically. Furthermore Love is Wild Thing could be seen as the thematic sister to Oh What A World both using natural imagery to convey the immense joy of love of a sprawling luscious landscape.
[Space Cowboy was nominated for the 61st Grammy Awards, read more about it in an article coming soon]
Other than a fantastic chord progression in the bridge of Lonely Weekend, a couple of songs could too easily pass you by without focused listening. A few tracks can be ‘paired up’ as being too similar, and there really isn’t too much variety throughout Golden Hour as a whole. But therein lies the success of the work; Musgraves isn’t afraid to keep things simple, or strip songs back to their bare roots and allow her talent to shine, even with her keen ear for musical production and added effects. This is heard fully in Rainbow, a modern and developed piano ballad that could be seen as the spiritual sequel to Mother heard earlier in the album.
In a world where critically more is more, this minimalist approach feels brave. It’s a smart end to a glorious album that causes the listener to think: What makes this song a country song? I would argue it’s a consistency in songwriting combined with staple country themes such as nature, heartbreak and loneliness put together so carefully so as to fully immerse us in her world. This combined with shimmering electronic details makes Golden Hour a complete joy to listen to over and over again.