(Photo courtesy of The Guardian) “‘Golden Hour’ has left behind an award-winning legacy that is sure to be a sign of the album standing the test of time.
March 30, 2023, commemorated the five-year anniversary of the release of Kacey Musgraves’ third studio album, “Golden Hour.” The album was released to mass critical and commercial success, going on to win Album of the Year at the Grammys, attain a platinum certification and reach the top 100 year-end country album charts every year since its release.
Musgraves is one of the biggest outsiders in the country music industry. Despite massive critical success, strong album sales and decent streaming numbers, country radio still refuses to give her a shot. Whether it is due to her support of LGBTQ+ rights, her callouts of the industry or something else, she remains on the outskirts of a genre she is pioneering for a new generation.
“Golden Hour” straddles the line between country and pop with equal effectiveness. Pre-release single “High Horse” was at the forefront of the disco-pop renaissance that dominated the pop music industry in 2020, while Best Country Song winner “Space Cowboy” is a stripped-back, authentic country song, with genius wordplay and a gorgeous soundscape.
“High Horse” is one of the more interesting songs released by a country artist as of late. The disco-pop sound would normally stand out of place on an album with an authentic direction, but her songwriting and delivery still give the song just enough of a brush of country so that it is still rooted in the genre. Her intentions are far more complex than simply wanting to become a pop star here: Musgraves instead seems to want to make pop music more country. It works.
Despite the seeming genre imbalance, “Golden Hour” is linked together by a central feeling of musical optimism, hopefulness and gorgeousness. The experience of listening to “Golden Hour,” at its most feverish dance-pop high and its most soul-baring piano ballad low, is tied together by a sound that feels like the music equivalent of being given a long, tight hug.
The album opens with “Slow Burn,” a quiet but lyrically searing meditation on her life thus far and her desire to keep going through life on her terms and at her pace. This sets the stage for the remainder of the album to continue to investigate Musgraves’ life, relationships and feelings. While she has always been an autobiographical writer, the marriage between this element and her increasingly pop-focused songwriting blends fabulously.
The album experiments throughout this journey but never loses sight of its central goal. “Oh, What A World” sees Musgraves experiment with a vocoder, and her voice in this song is described as a mesh between country music and Daft Punk. The following song, “Mother,” was written while Musgraves was on a recreational drug trip, and the sound is suitably appropriate.
While the beginning of the album may suggest that “Golden Hour” will take a far more sonically interesting turn than it ends up taking, the back half is still filled with excellent, standout country songs. This turn in the album is marked by “Space Cowboy,” which stands as one of the best songs of her career thus far. It follows a breakup where the other person wants space and freedom, and she is okay with it because their love faded anyway. It is a shockingly relatable, heartfelt and emotionally mature adventure, marked by ambitiously layered songwriting and a restrained but complex sound.
The album closes with “Rainbow,” which has since gone on to become Musgraves’ most streamed song to date. The heartfelt piano ballad is a message of hope to those facing struggles in their lives, serving simultaneously as an emotionally moving piece of music and as a potential anthem for those rising up against their adversity.
Musgraves had generated commercial and critical attention before “Golden Hour,” particularly for her debut album “Same Trailer Different Park” and its singles “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow.” However, the acclaim and success of “Golden Hour” launched her into the stratosphere, and rightfully so.
To this day, “Golden Hour” stands as one of, if not the best, country album of the millennium so far. The mix of authentic and experimental sounds has yet to be replicated in a way that does not simply sound trend-chasing. Far too many country stars have been incapable of escaping the trap of either making 2010’s country-pop style songs on endless repeat, of making songs so authentic to the genre that there is no reason to actually seek them out or of making country music lazily meshed with trap to make it palatable to modern mainstream sensibilities. Country music needs more stars like Musgraves and should embrace her artistry going forward.
Overall grade: A+