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AN ALBUM FOR
THE AGES
Exploring the Nearly Perfect New Set by Mercury Nashville's Kacey Musgraves

Remember when you delved into the last Adele album and were stunned to find that every track on the album was great? The sheer consistency of the material was as impressive as any individual song. Regardless of format, 21 instantly took its place in the pantheon of timeless pop music—a rare feat indeed.

Well, another release that maintains that level of consistent brilliance has landed on our desk: Kacey Musgraves’ masterful new album, Pageant Material (Mercury Nashville).

For a record of such creative ambition and thematic clarity, it’s notable that this Pageant opens with a dreamy song about kicking back and sparking a joint.

But “High Time,” however mellow, is a statement of purpose that sets up the album perfectly: A moment of reflection and a vow not to get caught up in bullshit.

Musgraves experienced a flash of fame with her last album, featuring the winning single “Follow Your Arrow.” Grammy wins for Best Country Album and Song (“Merry Go Round”), nominations for Best New Artist and a second Country Song (“Mama’s Broken Heart,” which she co-wrote for Miranda Lambert) and an appearance on Music’s Biggest Night in electric boots ensued.

Well, safe to say those boots have been traded in for a more practical and comfortable pair.

For a record of such creative ambition and thematic clarity, it’s notable that this Pageant opens with a dreamy song about kicking back and sparking a joint.

Without being preachy, Pageant Material is all about self-acceptance, avoiding drama and not judging others so goddamn much, all realized with melodies that are soul-deep and utterly lovely. (Musgraves co-wrote the stunningly consistent suite of tunes with Shane McAnally, Luke Laird, Brandy Clark and other consummate pros; she co-produced with McAnally and Laird.)

“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy,” she sings in the irresistible single “Biscuits,” as unpretentious an anthem as you’ll ever hear. While the ingratiating tune and homespun expressions may sound traditional, the values are progressive: “Hoe your own row and raise your own babies/Smoke your own smoke and grow your own daisies/Mend your own fences and own your own crazy.”

Like several other tunes on Pageant Material, it’s a playful rebuke to the pious, judgmental types currently rampaging in the heartland. Variations on this theme can also be found in the slinky, knowing “This Town” and the compassionate “Somebody to Love”; the trio of tunes forms a sort of suite at the heart of the album.

The title track addresses her square-peg experiences as a southern gal, tweaking (however gently) the old-school ideal of femininity: “The only Crown is in my glass.” A million miles from “Miss Congenial” in a sash, Musgraves sketches out her own self-image in the bright and affecting “Dime Store Cowgirl,” in which she declares her affinity for Willie Nelson and Gram Parsons and freely cops to her contradictions: starry-eyed with wanderlust but forever knowing “I’ll still call my hometown home.”

What’s striking, even after repeated listens, is how consistently gorgeous the songs are—one gem after another. And some of the gentlest material is the strongest; a case in point is the exquisite love song “Late to the Party.” With a glowing melody that could’ve flowed out of some dreamy Laurel Canyon enclave in the early ‘70s, “Party” is about the joy of preferring alone time with one’s beloved to anyone else’s gathering. It’s an instant classic.

Musgraves sings this with a soft sweetness that sounds effortless—like every other performance, it’s simply what’s right for the song, with nuances that unfurl with each listen.

There’s scarcely room here to go into the album’s other great songs, because, well, they’re all great. Suffice to say that “Family Is Family” is ruefully hilarious, “Good Ol’ Boys Club” digs a spur into Nashville’s male power structure and “Cup of Tea” is one of the best “be yourself” songs ever penned.

The instrumentation and production throughout are similarly thoughtful, splitting the difference between modern Pop and classic Country in the most pleasing way imaginable. It’s the most substantial ear candy we can remember hearing in a long time.

Hidden after the album’s final cut, the aching country waltz “Fine,” is an old-timey honky-tonk lament that finds her dueting with none other than Willie Nelson. The rumpled maverick’s voice and guitar feel like exactly the right benediction for Pageant Material; Nelson’s gorgeously unorthodox work and career path have clearly been an arrow for Musgraves to follow.

“Are you sure,” they sing to their bar-dwelling lovers, “that this is where you want to be?”

If this is the music that’s playing, absolutely.

 

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