Kacey Musgraves and Playing It Safe: Pageant Material, Reviewed

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Whether Pageant Material represents a temporary retreat or a broader withering of ideas I don’t pretend to know, but it’s a retreat for sure. The smart money’s on the album being treated by The Critics in the here-and-now as a fatal retreat, because…well, put it this way: all the talk you might’ve heard about Kacey Musgraves being the young and popular country singer who it’s hip to like? Well, it’s quite possible that just died on the spot, because she just committed a cardinal sin for the non-country-oriented critical establishment: she went even more country. No foolin’ — a straight-up country album! From a country artist! The nerve!

Apologies for the sarcasm. In case you don’t know, Kacey Musgraves made a record two years ago called Same Trailer Different Park, which got some attention from people who don’t usually pay much attention to country. It was basically a lovely, lovely record, kind and tuneful and sweet — sometimes admittedly overbalancing the sweet to the point of preciousness — but also sharp as a whip and sardonic about contemporary country’s veneration of the small-town American South. Among other things, Same Trailer announced Kacey as one of “Country’s Straight-Talk Feminists”, as a New York Times piece dubbed her alongside Ashley Monroe. The solo “breakthroughs” of Musgraves and Monroe, followed in short order by those of Sunny Sweeney, Angaleena Presley, and Brandy Clark (who co-wrote a few songs on Musgraves’ new Pageant Material as she did with Same Trailer), signaled a heartening reaction to the shameless bro-ishness of mainstream contemporary country, most of which — even more than just being awful in a generic way — is plainly dishonest through its often blatant embarrassment at its own roots. Miranda Lambert remains the reigning godmother of these women’s acidic-yet-self-respecting edge, and as Jon Caramanica pointed out in the aforementioned Times piece, Lambert’s feistiness has perhaps sustained its influence longer in the country market than, to state the obvious example, Taylor Swift’s wide-eyed diary approach.

In a way, Pageant Material could be seen as a reaction to Swift. Not in the sense of being critical of the kinds of moves Swift or others have taken from country to pop, but rather in the sense that Kacey has looked around, realized how easily a heralded country musician can cross over into the pop market — risking dilution of some sensibilities that made her special in the first place — and opted to root herself where she knows. Of course, the other side of that coin is that Kacey’s playing it safe because she knows she doesn’t have Swift’s ambition. (Or, to put it less pejoratively, she knows her limitations.) And indeed, as sharp as Kacey’s words are she often falls back into the modest comforts of laid-back sermonizing or on-the-nose phrasing.

And that’s been the most frustrating thing about Kacey Musgraves from the get-go: she’s too eager to please. This was already evident in parts of Same Trailer, but it’s all the more frustrating here because her general love of songcraft and in particular her sense of melody hasn’t dimmed. The one-two-three punch of songs that open the album is representative, both for better and worse. “High Time” begins with a beautiful high note from Kacey, harmonized with one of her male bandmembers, that floats to the ground and into a steady dirt-road stroll. Lyrically, its grass entendres are clear but not irritatingly self-satisfied like so many; consider it a “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” for thoughtful small-town country girls. But musically, it’s a thing of beauty: there’s Kacey’s singing itself, strong and wispy from moment to moment yet always clear and decisive with the wonderful tunes that seem to come so casually for her, but there’s also a little whistled hook that’s charming on its own and something more when it starts disguising itself under pedal steel (or vice-versa). Even the risky choice of a string section is pulled off gracefully, lilting and flourishing in all the right places.

So far so lovely. But then track two bobs in and my heart sank. “Dime Store Cowgirl”, it’s called, and it’s all about how Kacey has seen success and seen the world but how “you can take me outta the country, but you can’t take the country outta me” and she’ll always call her hometown home. Good for her, really. Like I said, she roots herself where she knows. But despite the expected hint of self-doubt (“that’s all I’m ever gonna be”), this sentiment is tired on the page and isn’t worked into anything inventive with the music, which is…well, it’s just niceness. Niceness can be such a bummer sometimes. And that song’s followed by “Late to the Party”, which brings in some foggy pedal steel for a song about taking time with your boo on the way to a party where you know you’ll just be thinking of each other the whole time. Again: nice, and once again the lovely melody seems to come so offhand. But it’s too on-the-nose, in content if not in cadence. (Though that third song’s still worth hearing for Kacey’s lovely high notes on the word “you” in the choruses, and the endearing catch in the phrasing of “I’m sorry I’m not sorry.”)

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Those songs set the stage for the general frustration I felt throughout Pageant Material. And not just for the pat words, either, nor even in the pat way Kacey tends to lean on the lame old cliché (in country as well as hip-hop) of just stopping the music for a bar to emphasize a word or phrase, rather than trying to get the point home another way. No, another thing about the new album is that its musical eclecticism is dialed-back. There are no stomping blues-rockers here, no rockabilly or harmonica hoedowns as there were on Same Trailer; everything’s pretty low-key. Sometimes this restraint can be tantalizing in the best ways: “This Town” borrows from Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”, the ultimate song that sees small towns as “sets of prying eyes” (Jon Caramanica again), as it relates a hooky but also paranoid song about how the town’s “too small to be mean” simply because the tight neighborhood immediately stomps out anything risqué. “Somebody’s mama knows somebody’s cousin and somebody’s sister knows somebody’s husband…” she half-whispers, looking over her shoulder, anxious but also somewhat excited at the tantalizing power of small-town scandal. 

“Family Is Family”, which was previewed a week ago and which I initially resisted for its chorus’s shameless similarity to the singable tolerance song “Follow Your Arrow” from Same Trailer, grew on me simply because of the lyrics: “They’re there when you’re married, divorced and re-married, you fall out of touch but then someone gets buried”; “They might smoke like chimneys, but give you your kidneys.” “Die Fun” has another casually beautiful tune. And the waltz-time closer “Fine” closes with reticence but conceals a hidden track with Willie Nelson. Even leaving aside how much of a pleasure it always is to hear Willie’s voice itself, both their voices wonder whether this bleary bar, with these bleary so-called friends, is where you “really want to be,” and the guitar textures conjure that bleary vibe in a way that reminded me of cult ‘50s guitar duo Santo & Johnny, whose instrumentals like “Sleepwalk” attained a similarly eerie, dreamlike calm.

And lead single “Biscuits” is just a delight, from its homespun acoustic figure to its big singalong chorus about minding your own “biscuits” (“…and life will be gravy”). The part where Kacey shifts up and sings “mend your own fences” is one of the most casually gorgeous bits of melody-making I’ve heard this year, so much so that I’m even willing to look past the tired sentiment about how “if you ain’t got nothing nice to say, don’t say nothing at all.” (Dumbest saying ever.)

Kacey has a growing fondness for the “under the desert stars” vibe that surely stems from her Texan roots. When I caught her live a few months ago, she decorated her stage with neon cacti of the kind you’d see on the back patio of a half-empty “ranch”-themed bar at three in the morning, and she even closed the show with a band-harmonized a cappella lullaby. Even the album’s title track, a put-down of Southern beauty pageants with one of those pretty melodies that seem so simple you can’t believe you haven’t heard it before, evokes a starlit sky just as much to the softer loon-call guitar tinges of “Miserable”.

All the more frustrating that Kacey’s refusal to join the “Good Ol’ Boys Club” seems so half-hearted, or that the sweetly-arranged “Cup of Tea” (music box!) has an acoustic guitar transition almost identical to the one that hooks the verses of “Family Is Family” two tracks earlier. Or that “Somebody to Love” may be the most phoned-in and precious song she’s ever written, even while sounding melodically similar to Same Trailer’s pitch-perfect breakout “Merry Go ‘Round”.

And yet Kacey’s dulcet voice and talent for melody are still worthy of great respect — just about every tune connects. There are good and bad degrees of “safe.” No matter if you do it well or not you’re bound to get a lot of criticism from creeps that resent artists who present a fairly wholesome and romantic persona to the world (because it reminds them of how badly they’ve managed to fuck up their own lives and how sterilized by irony their own emotions are). Sure, Kacey’s playing it safe. Too safe, I agree. Sometimes I even worry about her voice. There’s one part in the otherwise perfect “High Time” where she sings the words “just to take out the trash” and sounds like she could be any generic talent show homecoming queen. But she retains her big-hearted character in her writing and her sound, laid-back but not passive. She’s aware that “tomorrow might come crashing down before tonight,” so here’s hoping she takes that lesson to heart more consistently. Those of us who appreciate actual songcraft and aren’t satisfied by Mark Kozelek moaning about his dick can dig in.

B+