Word on the bandwidth is that Kacey Musgraves dropped acid while listening to a Tame Impala record, and now she's the greatest country singer for people who don't listen to country music.
What a dim way to think about Musgraves' "Golden Hour," an extraordinary new album that, sure, might have been inspired by hallucinogens and pseudo psych-rock but still aces many of the tests we expect a great country album to pass. For one, if country music is about everyday life, here's a songwriter arguing that awe and bewilderment are essential to our everyday lives. What a heavy thought to make light. Our wonderment is completely ordinary.
And while Musgraves seems to be gazing into this titanic truth through a drowsy third eye, her calm feels particularly un-trippy during "Oh, What A World," a small song about big mysteries. Across two sweetly sung verses, she jots down a list of mindblowers - the aurora borealis, bioluminescent sea creatures, psychoactive plants, a belief in reincarnation, the possibility of a multiverse - and then repeats a little mantra to keep her brain from floating off into the void like a slippery helium balloon. "These are real things," she tells herself. "Yeah, these are real things."
For reality-obsessed country music fans, that's a serious piece of bubble gum on which to chew. Musgraves' reality is the only one by which she has to go. And the same goes for you, and for me, and for everybody else.
You need to hear the music, though. It's easy to reduce a country song to its lyrics, and Musgraves knows the real meaning of a song lies in how the voice illuminates the words, anyway. So now she seems to be approaching her singing as if it were some kind of meditation. Instead of going on lung-scorching rocket rides or sinking into pillowy whisper games, Musgraves appears to be moving toward the stillness of the center of her voice. The effect can be strange and beautiful. She sounds her most emotive whenever she sounds her most bored. And what's boredom, really? The softest kind of yearning.
That soft desire has been the hallmark of Musgraves' music ever since 2013's "Same Trailer, Different Park," a tremendous debut album that captures the bruising stretch of adulthood when your idealism begins to sour. Musgraves tried to stay that course with 2015's "Pageant Material" but nearly derailed the whole thing with too many winking lyrical puns.
That's another reason "Golden Hour" feels like a triumph. It never sounds cute, even when it sounds clever. She duets with a vocoder on "Oh, What A World." She rides a Phoenix-style disco beat on "High Horse." She's deploying new tools to tweak the temperature, but everything is presented in the same understated way that Musgraves delivers her words. She bends her music neatly to the contours of her voice.
Here's a country singer who has been kind enough to open her third eye and take note. The rest of us only have to open our ears.