Album Review — Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Golden Hour’

(Note: This post originally appeared in April 2018 on Fusion Country, which is now closed. It’s being reposted here for reader availability. This is another review I absolutely loved writing, as it’s one of my favorite albums of the 2010s and my co-album of the year in 2018.)

The trajectory and journey of the career of Kacey Musgraves has been an interesting one. Her major label debut album Same Trailer, Different Park captured heaps of critical acclaim and attention, most notably for her open-minded anthem “Follow Your Arrow.” She then followed it up with Pageant Material, which I found to be a great album that was seemingly ignored by many in the music industry. It was disappointing, but predictable considering it didn’t have any “eye-catching headline” songs or hits. But I’ve been highly anticipating her newest album Golden Hour. Musgraves has consistently improved as a songwriter throughout her career and I felt this could be a moment for her to really step up into the spotlight if she hit a home run. After thorough listens to Golden Hour, this album impressed me from start to finish with its bold risk taking and its deep dive into various emotions.

The album begins with the autobiographical “Slow Burn.” It appropriately has a dreamy, hazy feel as Musgraves croons about taking your time and doing it your own way. The song serves a signal for the rest of the album, which goes places many don’t dare to go in country music. “Lonely Weekend” is an anthem that assures you it’s okay to be alone at times in life. The song has a bubbly tropical feel despite the song tapping into the dark fears of missing out and social pressure. It’s the perfect song for the social media generation, describing the loneliness felt by many despite being more “connected” with each other than ever before in history. “Butterflies” goes against the sarcastic, sly personality Musgraves has largely personified in her songs up to this point. It’s cute, vulnerable and the production of the song even has the feel of butterflies fluttering through a bright blue sky. It also serves as a metaphor of how Musgraves’ outlook on love has went from the unloved caterpillar to blossoming into the pretty and appreciated butterfly.

The spacey sounds of a vocoder greet you on “Oh, What a World.” I absolutely love the utilization of the vocoder throughout this song because it helps sonically frame the lyrics. As the listener it makes you feel like you’re floating in space looking down upon the planet and admiring the mystery and vastness of it all. Then there’s the world of love between a couple, which feels just as deep and magical. This is a song where everything clicks perfectly together to create something beautiful and memorable that will stick with you. “Mother” is a more of an interlude than a song, as Musgraves soberly reflects upon the relationship with her mother after an acid trip. It’s a short and tasteful piano ballad. Musgraves expounds more upon her excitement of falling in love on “Love Is a Wild Thing.” She likens it to an exploration in the wilderness and stumbling upon it, rather than finding it. The instrumentation stays close enough to traditional, until the bridge where there’s a slick beat change that really adds a great spark to the song (credit to the producers Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian).

There are several standout moments throughout this album and one of them without a doubt is “Space Cowboy.” With a title like this you expect something much different from what it is: your classic break-up country ballad. Except it’s set in modern-day, where the cowboy rides off in his Silverado instead of his horse. Then we get to the bridge of the song, which goes into a trippy, steel guitar-laced instrumental that adds more gravitas to the setting of the song (another smart production choice). It’s such a refreshing take all-around in the one of the most oft-treaded spaces in the genre. Heavy drum loops introduce “Happy & Sad,” which might be one of Kacey’s best written songs ever. The song expertly explores the complicated feelings of being happy and sad at the same time, in other words anxiety. It’s the anxiety of losing your happiness and everything crashing down when it’s all going great. I don’t think my words can properly describe how well the lyrics get to the root of this emotion and something you have to feel yourself.

“Velvet Elvis” is a fun and funky jam that will probably make a lot of summer playlists. It’s the kind of the song you want to blare loudly as you drive down the highway with the windows down. I got a strong classic country feel from the very first listen of “Wonder Woman.” It feels like something Dolly Parton would record. As Musgraves sings, she freely admits she isn’t always strong, reliable and is only a human who makes mistakes. It’s starkly honest, showing strength through an expression of fear. I previously did a whole other post dedicated to “High Horse,” a fantastic disco country jam about taking the high road. I will add that it’s ironic country radio casted aside Kacey and then she delivered a song that screams hit.

The album’s title track is probably the most underrated on the whole album. It’s not as flashy, catchy or fun as a lot of the other tracks. But it’s one of those songs that’s instantly comforting, like a ray of sunshine. It’s a new song, but it feels like an old favorite. The album finishes with a fantastic closer in “Rainbow.” The song captures that moment when the storm has finally passed and the light casts upon you again. It’s liberation from anguish and an embrace of capturing a sense of happiness that’s felt elusive for so long.

Golden Hour is an excellent journey through the ups and downs of the spectrum of human emotions. Happiness, sadness, love, confusion, fun, loneliness, togetherness, cockiness, hope and more are all on display. To be human is to feel and this album makes you feel so many things. This a defining moment for Kacey Musgraves, as a songwriter and an artist. Not only showcasing her top-level songwriting, but fearlessly taking the kind of risks that so many artists are outright scared or incapable of taking with their music. Most music released today sounds timid and lacks creativity. This album is full of confidence and charges ahead without letting the unwritten rules of music hold it back. When you cast away life’s preconceptions, you’re truly free as Kacey Musgraves demonstrates with Golden Hour.

Grade: 10/10

 

Album Review — John Anderson’s ‘Years’

John Anderson is truly one of the most under-appreciated artists in the history of country music, as his distinctive voice has fueled so many great songs. Whether they be on the more serious or novelty side, Anderson could deliver a memorable performance. So after a long hiatus from music and overcoming health setbacks, I was thrilled to see him back with his first new album in 20 years. Produced by Dan Auerbach and David Ferguson and released on Easy Eye Sound, who I’ve given lots of praise, I was intrigued to hear what the group had in store for Years.

The mellow and subdued “I’m Still Hangin’ On” opens the album. Right away I’m impressed with how great Anderson’s voice still sounds after all these years. It’s aged like fine wine. And it’s an appropriate song to open the album, as Anderson reflects on his life and how he’s still moving forward, even though many thought he wouldn’t make it to this point. The songwriting is so sharp and detailed, with memorable lines giving the perfect insight into Anderson’s psyche and the quiet, humble optimism that beams within him. “Celebrate” continues on with the same theme of Anderson’s own mortality and celebrating all the gifts he’s been given in his life. The mix of countrypolitan and western sounds great, especially the hints of harmonica that show up throughout give it a “journey” feel.

The album’s title track became an instant favorite for me. For one, the hook is instantly catchy and I love how the production mashes together classy sounding strings and roaring guitar interludes. It’s not only a triumphant and uplifting sound, but a homage to the sounds of Anderson’s career, as he often mixed rock in with his country. Anderson is surprisingly joined by Blake Shelton on “Tuesday I’ll Be Gone” and man they sound pretty great together on this warmly melodic track. Despite my issues with Shelton over the years, he undeniably has a fantastic voice and it’s cool how this collaboration came together thanks to Shelton having Anderson open for him on his tour. I love to see older and younger generations of artists collaborating and this is one of the best examples I’ve heard in recent years. In a better music world, this song about finding solace in alone time would be a hit.

“What’s a Man Got to Do” is about a man barely holding on in a relationship, wondering what he has to do to keep it alive. It’s really solid storytelling, Anderson’s pen shining through, and I love how much the fiddles and strings stand out in this track, giving it an enjoyably smooth feel. “Wild and Free” is Anderson’s ode to still living life wild and free. He may be getting up there in age, but his spirit is still as vibrant and young as ever. Again, I love the optimism he expresses and I love the sly nod with the song’s name to his album Wild and Blue. The waltzing love ballad “Slow Down” is another song that instantly won me over. The soft pedal steel guitar, strings and piano give it such a soothing and peaceful feeling that’s easy to get lost in, much like the love being described in the song.

“All We’re Really Looking For” is perhaps the best written song of the album, as Anderson’s storytelling is absolutely wonderful. The song begins with stories of his youth, from his mom making him feel better after a scrape to getting his first car, he relates it all back to love and the importance it plays in one’s pursuits in life. The material possessions we chase, the statuses we covet and the secure feeling we seek all just boil down to love. It’s an inspiring and impactful message that truly touches the heart. “Chasing Down a Dream” contemplates how man can be so driven to chase down a dream. It’s a really good song asking an important question, although I wish it would have went a bit deeper (admittedly a little nitpicking, but a tiny criticism nonetheless).

The album closes with the sad and dark “You’re Nearly Nothing.” It explores the cold lonely feeling of not feeling love, applying to several situations, whether it be because you’re single and can’t find love or if you’re getting up in age and not as many people coming around to visit you. It’s a sobering and real look at loneliness and the effect it can play on one’s mind. This is one instance though where I don’t like Auerbach’s production being so grandiose, as this song needed to be more stripped back to give it even more effect. Still the lyrics and Anderson’s vocal performance pack a powerful punch.

There have been many near death/mortality albums done throughout country music history, calling to my mind Johnny Cash’s famous American Recordings series, Wille Nelson’s hauntingly great Spirit (and various other sharp takes on the subject), and the late great John Prine’s final album The Tree of Forgiveness grinning in the face of mortality. John Anderson’s Years is without a doubt worthy of standing right next to these pieces of work. The songwriting on this is incredibly strong, with Anderson impressively having a hand in writing every track. Auerbach and Ferguson also deliver production that shines for the most part and continues their streak of quality projects. Years shows John Anderson is not only still hanging on, but he’s thriving and smiling.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review — Ashley McBryde’s ‘Never Will’

Ashley McBryde’s major label debut album Girl Going Nowhere was truly one of the most underrated albums of 2018. Unfortunately it was released at a bad time, as Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour released on the same day along with several other high-profile releases at the time. So it felt like that album and McBryde never got the proper attention and respect. But one thing I definitely took away from that great album was one day McBryde would release an album of the year level record. Well I didn’t think it would happen so soon, but that’s pleasantly the case with her follow-up album Never Will.

The album greets you with heartland rock guitars on “Hang In There Girl.” And I’m so glad she leans more into this sound on the album, as it fits her like a glove. The opening song is an anthem for young girls stuck in small towns with big dreams, telling them to hang on through the hard times until they reach their goals one day. It’s an uplifting and very real message that I imagine will resonate with so many young girls across the midwest of America. Lead single “One Night Standards” shows the excellent storytelling abilities of McBryde, as she vividly tells the story of a one-night stand involving a married man. It’s brutally honest about the nature of the situation, painting both of the people in the story in an appropriately not positive light. It also details the justification of the action’s of the woman in the situation, which is flimsy. But that’s how it’s supposed to be, as the line is blurred between who she’s really trying to convince: him or herself.

“Shut Up Sheila” is an interesting song about a family going through the difficulty of watching a woman’s grandmother dying, only for a “friend” named Sheila to be butting in with unnecessary comments. The overall theme centers around pushing back against judgmental people and standing up for doing things your way. And while I love this message, what really makes this song stand out is the sound. Jay Joyce centers it around a spacey, echoing sound that gives it an ominous feel before giving away to roaring guitars that really put an exclamation point on the song. “First Thing I Reach For” is classic country gold in every way, from it’s steel guitar-driven sound to the timeless theme of overindulging in vices. I particularly enjoy the line, “Another night of bad decisions/There’s one still laying in my bed/The bastard in me wishes/That he’d woke up first and left.” It’s both humorous and memorable.

“Voodoo Doll” has quickly become a favorite for me and for two reasons. One because I love the way it’s written and the amount of intricate details given to a woman being made to feel like a voodoo doll watching her man cheat on her. Two because the production matches the dramatic, whiplash feel of the lyrics with McBryde delivering the type of fiery vocal performance that once again makes me thrilled that there are more rock influences on this album. The guitars absolutely roar, I love the little mandolin interludes and it’s an absolute blast to sing along with the chorus. “Sparrow” is on the other end of the spectrum, a soft and somber song about the cold realities a musician experiences traveling on the road. While McBryde acknowledges the exhilaration of realizing a dream, it also comes with missing your loved ones. Once again I applaud McBryde for both her honesty and genuine heart that shines through in the lyrics.

“Martha Divine” is another rock-driven track, this time a cheating/murder ballad interestingly told from the perspective of the daughter witnessing her father in the middle of misdeed. Fueled by infectious and thumping drums that get the heart pounding, the daughter vows to hunt down and kill the mistress, Martha Divine. Which by the way the name is clever and appropriate in itself, playing on the Aramic meaning of Martha, which is mistress, and divine, which means relating to God (the daughter in this case seeing her interference as a god-like act). And yes the daughter is flawed for only going after the father, but the daughter is going to naturally have an emotional blindspot for the father. The song also wisely avoids endearing us towards these violent actions, but rather gives a neutral window look in.

McBryde goes back to classic country storytelling on “Velvet Red.” It’s about a forbidden love affair between a poor maker of wine and the mayor’s only daughter, resulting in a daughter who would be nicknamed after the very wine her unknown father made. Not only is this storytelling on point, but I love the surprise reveal at the end that the daughter is telling the story of her parents conceiving her. I don’t mind the filter the vocals are being put through either, as it doesn’t hurt the song. “Stone” is the most emotional moment on the album, as a woman comes to grips with the death of her father and realizing how similar they were, despite their rocky relationship. The song doesn’t shy from the complicated nature of the feelings involved and that’s why I enjoy the storytelling of McBryde. It feels real and truly resonates with the listener as a result.

The album’s title track is pure heartland rock, with it’s “Dancing in the Dark”-like guitars perfectly texturing this never-give-up anthem. It’s autobiographical, as McBryde recalls all of the doubters along her journey and how she never gave into this negativity. Personally I really connect with the lyrics, so it’s easily my favorite on the album. Also if McBryde wants to make a straight-up rock album, I’m totally down for it because she just gets the ethos of classic rock. McBryde makes a quirky and fun choice to close the album with “Styrofoam.” Unlike anything she’s ever released before, it’s bouncy, light-hearted track about her love of styrofoam cups and features her doing spoken word through like half of it. And I thought I would dislike it, but I love it. Usually these type of gimmicky songs grind my gears, but I enjoy the history lesson at the beginning and it serves as a nice dose of casual fun to balance out the serious moments on the album. Because as I’ve said before, we don’t need to be serious all the time.

Ashley McBryde delivers exactly what I had hoped for and then beyond with Never Will. She leans heavily into her natural heartland rock sound and combines it with traditional country to create an album I will remember for a long time. The songwriting is brilliant and varied, running the gauntlet of emotions and most importantly I think Ashley McBryde delivers a flawless presentation of flawed characters. They’re never framed as likable, but real and as they are, which can be hard to get behind as a listener. But just like Sturgill Simpson’s SOUND & FURY, it can be understandable to not want to listen to music about such real and flawed characters, songs where there are no heroes even. For me though this is the music that is truly intriguing and has a lasting impact.

That is why I believe this is one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2020 and maybe the best country album of the year.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’

Dua Lipa hasn’t really been on my radar up until this point. Her debut self-titled album didn’t catch my attention. But the lead single for her second album did get my attention and I’ve quietly been hopeful about it. After listening to her second album Future Nostalgia quite thoroughly, I’m beyond hopeful. I’m ecstatic, as this is the kind of pop music that excites me with it’s bold sounds that pay homage to the past while sounding quite fresh and modern.

The album’s title track leads off, greeting with an ominous “future” echoed in the background that frequently interplays throughout the song. Fueled by an infectious electro-pop sound that gives a glimpse of what’s to come in the album, the song feels like Dua Lipa reintroducing herself to everybody, as she proclaims in the chorus: “I know you’re dying trying to figure me out/My name’s on the tip of your tongue, keep running your mouth/You want the recipe but can’t handle my sound.” The synth part in the bridge by Jeff Bhasker really gives it a cool sound to close out on too.

The album’s lead single and what brought this album to my attention, “Don’t Start Now,” is about a woman coming to realize she’s a better and stronger person for getting over her breakup with her ex. She realized how toxic he was and has slammed the door shut on the relationship. It’s a fist-pumping anthem that excellently utilizes various violins to create a classy, yet spacey sound. And of course it did what a lead single should do. “Cool” is about losing yourself to love and seeing something more beyond sexual chemistry. This song screams summer anthem and not just because it references the season, but more than anything the overall vibe puts me in mind of driving down a beach highway at night with the streetlights lit up with it’s smooth, futuristic sounds.

“Physical” is a straight-up banger that hooked me from the first moment I heard it. The combination of tight bass, plenty of synthesizers and well utilized drums creates a frenetic, disco meets sci-fi sound that makes it impossible not to want to dance to. And Lipa delivers a vocal performance with the kind of ferocious charisma that will have you easily singing along. This song has every element I want in a pop song: fun hooks, infectious sound and great vocals. “Levitating” is another exciting love song with good hooks. This song definitely has more disco influences and dare I say some 90s pop influences too. The talk box is beautifully utilized, as it gives the chorus more gravitas.

“Pretty Please” is about missing your love and finding instant relief once you’re in their arms. Once again I have to praise the production aspects, as a groovy, slightly understated bass line drives the rhythm of the song and what I love about it is how it shows you don’t have to have a “wall of sound” to create a big feel. Too many pop artists try to shove so many instruments into their sound to create an “epic” sound, but I’m glad to see Ian Kirkpatrick and Juan Ariza recognized how a simple approach is all that was needed to give this song a punch. “Hallucinate” is another perfect pop song in the same vein as “Physical.” On a 1-10 scale of danceability, it’s a 20 and Lipa delivers the hook with the amount of emotion needed to convey the desperate, intoxicating love being explored in the song. The sound is completely in synch with what feels like an out of control love.

Lipa explores overcoming doubt and insecurity on “Love Again.” It can be easy to overlook how much depth is in the songwriting here, as Lipa goes into many details about how she was previously in the state of never believing she would find love and the storm of emotions she once experienced before finding the love of her life. It’s another song too that nails the futuristic disco sound and the big hero for me is the violin play by Drew Jurecka (who also did the great violin work on “Physical”). It gives the song an appropriately triumphant and resilient feel, while also fueling the catchy disco sound too. “Break My Heart” is about falling for a heartbreaker, enjoying the rush of falling in love and dreading what feels like the inevitable falling out. The drums and the tambourines do a great job of creating that bouncy, disco sound. And I know I keep praising this, but I have to point out that it’s essentially a different team of producers on each song. So it’s kind of incredible how cohesive this album sounds.

Unfortunately “Good in Bed” is a complete mess, even though it does something incredible: it brought universal agreement amongst critics, in that essentially every critic says it’s the worst song on the album, and universal agreement is quite rare these days. The choppy cadence and the clunky lyrics about sex just makes this a bizarre song within the context of the rest of the album, as it just doesn’t fit in any way. Closing song “Boys Will Be Boys” doesn’t really fit the theme of the album either, although at least it’s good and it has a great message. It’s about how boys and young men are given a pass for dangerous behavior that increasingly leads to predatory and violent action towards women, often with the casual phrase “boys will be boys.” All the while girls are expected to be women and forced to adapt to these social double standards. It’s a powerful and meaningful way to bring a message that all should take to heart.

Dua Lipa delivers an absolutely fantastic album in Future Nostalgia. It has the elements I want to hear in a pop album and it comes oh so close to be an album of the year contender. Despite one slip-up, this album delivers everything else perfectly. It encapsulates disco, electro pop and dance music with the kind of aplomb and grace I would expect out of Carly Rae Jepsen, while at the same time delivering incredibly infectious hooks and vocal performances that will stick with you long after listening. This is one of the best pop albums you’ll hear in 2020.

Grade: 9/10