After a handful of independent albums and a Grammy-winning major label debut in 2013, Kacey Musgraves‘ sunny pop-country still feels fresh and welcome in a music scene whose main stream is too polluted by strained jingoism and cynical religiosity. What makes Musgraves’ new album Pageant Material deeper than its surface sheen are the subtle, knowing brushstrokes and appreciation for both the light and dark sides of human nature lurking in the undertow of the songs.
The frothiest material comes first on the new album, with “High Time” and “Dimestore Cowgirl,” the latter a rather clichéd and lightweight paean to authenticity. The whole album is melodically appealing, but what may start out feeling like bubblegum country becomes a multi-course meal only as you get a little ways into this batch of 13 brief, efficient songs.
When she addresses interpersonal relationships and society, Musgraves begins to belie the silkiness of her voice, which can sound merely pleasant when it’s not tackling anything significant. Case in point: the rougher-edged “Biscuits,” whose narrator demands of an unnamed neighbor, “Just…raise your own babies, smoke your own smoke, and grow your own daisies.” Here, typical country-music wordplay (“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy”) carries a gently effective force, snuck in on a girlish voice and shiny arrangements. This girl may be wearing a smile, but only when she feels one, and it doesn’t mean she’s taking any guff.
The bluesy “This Town” hints at darkness in its acute picture of a community where, yes, everyone looks out for each other, but the way they do it is by keeping their knowledge of their neighbors’ secrets to themselves. It’s the same message delivered in “Biscuits.” And a similar theme crops up in “Family Is Family,” whose title message is true whether “in church or in prison.”
The folksy and relatively somber “Miserable,” one of my favorite tracks, offers a sober depiction of a friend who’s only happy when he’s miserable, and an acoustic arrangement that’s especially expertly made. “Die Fun,” with its thoughtful, melodic, and sophisticated update of the old carpe diem advice, is another top track.
“Fine” sets a well-constructed lyric about love and longing to a traditional-sounding country waltz. And “Somebody to Love” is hard to resist, once you get the Jefferson Airplane hit out of your head and accept the new song’s gentle acoustic drone and lyrical catalog of the human situation.
“I don’t want to be a part of/The good ol’ boys club,” the singer declares in “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” framed cleverly by borderline-hokey good-ol’-boy pedal steel lines. It seems a brave message for a Grammy winner, but Musgraves wields sincerity like a manicurist wields a nail file, with no need for heavy earnestness.
And then there’s the title track, whose narrator declares, “I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t.” Its simple message of being true to yourself is probably consciously addressed to the singer’s many young female fans, but presented with a mature subtlety.
Fearlessly melodic, with a natural-sounding fusion of traditional instrumentation and a fresh sensibility, Pageant Material is another winner from a talented, good-looking star I find I can’t help rooting for. It’s out next week. Pre-order here.