Kacey Musgraves has always bucked the traditions of country music. She's been reverent but opts to mold these rural sounds into something that more closely aligns with her own contemporary perspective. Her past records have found her working through the storied history of country music by adapting its bucolic tendencies into a brilliantly skewed outlook on the evolution of modern music. She still hews close to that rustic template, but she's less concerned with adhering to any specific guidelines than she is with shaping these sounds into a narrative that embraces the various changes which she feels are necessary for its continued relevancy.
On her new record, "Golden Hour," she completely breaks down the expectations that many people have when thinking about the current state of country music. These songs don't conform to accepted notions of acoustic guitars and pickup trucks and tears spilled into bottles of beer; rather, they touch on aspects of life, love and heartache through a kaleidoscope of musical influences. She effortlessly raises the bar for musicians looking to explore the genre in a non-conventional way. Slick pop rhythms sit comfortably alongside disco patterns while the more bucolic melodies play tag in the foreground -- it's both a clash and a melding of sounds so fantastic that it'll have you reconsidering your assumptions regarding modern country music.
From the opening acoustic strums of "Slow Burn" to the gorgeous and buoyant piano simplicity of closer "Rainbow," the record manages to trek through a large swath of rhythmic variety, exploring sounds that you'd never expect to hear on a country album. Musgraves has never been shy about her propensity for telling intelligent and often emotionally taxing stories that don't always have a happy ending -- she's not been terribly concerned with resolutions as much as she is with wanting to find some deeper truth in the lives of her characters and herself. But across the length of "Golden Hour," she explores love in all its amber-hued beauty, which isn't all that surprising given that she's recently married and enjoying that point when love seems to invade every moment of your life.
Musgraves has always applied an uncanny wit and emotional aptitude to her music, but on "Golden Hour," she finds room to further expound upon these ideas of expansive reconditioning of the country genre and how to it can benefit from unconventional approaches. And this isn't just about trying to blend pop music with country -- she does that, of course, but these songs are wild and unpredictable. Melodies duck and tumble around her twangy perspective. "High Horse" is a quasi synth-pop excursion that mixes an elastic bassline with danceable movements, while "Oh, What a World" blends vocoder'd vocals with pedal steel guitar, banjo and miles-long melodies. On "Space Cowboy," however, she completely rewrites the rules of country music, creating a cosmic explosion of intimate emotion, bleeding heart lyricism and breathtaking arrangements as she travels through a constantly shifting musical atmosphere.
"Velvet Elvis" is a celebration of kitsch that borrows a bit from the intelli-pop of bands like Vampire Weekend and HAIM while maintaining its own individualism. But even with all these rhythmic outlier signifiers, "Golden Hour" is a still a country record, and songs like "Love is a Wild thing" and "Lonely Weekend" harness the inherent force of the genre, exhibiting the usual ache and rural longing that forms the basis of these heartfelt sounds. There's no sense that she's purposefully trying to break the mold of country music; her work on the record is natural and flows from a place of uncommon comfort and creativity. The fact that she's almost entirely reshaped the genre to suit her own needs without even trying is a testament to her ability to innovate within a musical space not used to atypical thinking and execution. "Golden Hour" is a wonder of musical transformation and a tribute to the boundless possibilities of sound, regardless of aesthetic.