It’s the way Kacey Musgraves sings the words “I still want a Hula-Hoop.” Let’s just start there, and end there, and live there forever. The aching lilt of her wispy, sticky-sweet cotton-candy voice, like she’s up on tiptoes, reaching for a single red runaway balloon, the string just evading her grasp. It is cheerful and naive, downcast and knowing. A bracing shot of rum in your eggnog, or vice versa. It makes you happy. It makes you wistful. It makes you want to buy her a Hula-Hoop.
Musgraves is a major-feeling minor country star, half sly subversive, half stubborn traditionalist. Her third album, A Very Kacey Christmas, came out Friday. Weird career move — a little early for the holiday-album route. (For both her career and the late-October release date. We’re not past Halloween yet! No Christmas music until after Thanksgiving! That’s the rule!) It’s troubling, until you listen to the thing. “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” man. Yeah, the Alvin and the Chipmunks song. It doesn’t belong to them anymore. Fuck those guys. No offense, Alvin.
Nothing revolutionary or terribly ostentatious here, from the close harmonies to the tipsy oom-pah-pah beat to the even tipsier accordion. There is no “Kacey? Kacey? KACEY!” joke, which is a missed opportunity. But it’s nonetheless warm and familiar and ever-so-slightly heartbreaking, vying for the god-tier melancholia of A Charlie Brown Christmas and getting way closer than you’d expect, even if you were already a fan of hers, which you oughta be.
Musgraves’s 2013 debut, Same Trailer Different Park, slung cold cups of coffee and burning barrels of kerosene. The dainty sing-along “Follow Your Arrow” was a shrewd Trojan horse for the red-state-seditious chorus of “Make lots of noise / Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.” And the gorgeously downtrodden “Merry Go ’Round” offered a bracing rejoinder to country radio’s obsession with idyllic, whitewashed small-town porn. She was hailed as a songwriter’s songwriter, and a righteous scythe to cut through the genre’s rampant broishness. She did the critic’s-darling press circuit (Fader cover!), she played award shows, she swiped the Best Country Album Grammy from Taylor Swift herself.
For a while, Musgraves seemed to be Going For It, playing arenas as Katy Perry’s opening act. (The unlikely pair also teamed up for a delightfully surreal episode of CMT Crossroads.) But 2015’s Pageant Material was a modest, mellow throwback, favoring pastoral soft-rock calm over disruption. “I’m just a dime-store cowgirl,” went the best song. “That’s all I’m ever gonna be.” Which stung a bit. It was a very well-made and phenomenally pleasant retreat. The superstar-country ecosystem is absurdly cruel and capricious and female-averse; you could hardly blame her for changing lanes. But the pivot into full-blown kitsch, especially live — lotsa neon, lotsa rhinestones — was worrisome.
A Very Kacey Christmas steers hard into that twee skid. The palette stretches from Western swing to Hawaiian camp to the precocious-kid ’50s goof “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”; guests range from Willie Nelson to soft-soul upstart Leon Bridges to fellow Texan roadhouse throwbacks the Quebe Sisters. Musgraves is perfect for “Feliz Navidad” — there’s no country star you’d rather have singing Spanish — though she probably didn’t need to clarify, midsong, that “Feliz Navidad” means “Merry Christmas.”
It’s cool, though. In all its sunny, atemporal, cartoonish, weird-Americana whimsy, the closest cultural antecedent here might be Pee-wee’s Playhouse. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is lightly dusted in sleigh bells and pedal steel, with a raucous clarinet solo; “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a gorgeously delicate cowpoke shuffle. The way she delivers that final “Hang a shining star upon the highest bow” is no joke, either.
A brief aside:
Hard pass. Anyway.
Original tunes are rarely the main draw on pop-star Christmas albums (Mariah excepted), but Musgraves would seem to be a special case. This should be her wheelhouse, bizarrely. So it’s initially disappointing that only one of the four new tracks here is truly essential. Gently discard “A Willie Nice Christmas” (which daintily places a Santa hat on the keen observation that Willie Nelson likes to smoke weed) and “Present Without a Bow” (a snoozy duet with Bridges that generates few sparks and no chestnuts-roasting flame). “Ribbons and Bows,” an upbeat tinsel-Motown jam cowritten with big-shot pop-star whisperers Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, is a quick more-rum-than-eggnog jolt. But it’s “Christmas Makes Me Cry” that’ll really get you, a gentle and devastating ode to holiday depression that offers both a shoulder to lean on and the invigorating slap in the face that necessitated it. This part gets exceptionally, exquisitely raw:
Seems like everybody else is having fun
I wonder if I’m the only one
Whose broken heart
Still has broken parts
Just wrapped in pretty paper
And it’s always sad
Seein’ Mom and Dad
Gettin’ a little grayer
The words “pretty paper” especially, friends. Look out. And then she’s grasping for a whole clutch of runaway red balloons on the final chorus:
And I know that they say
Have a happy holiday
And every year I sincerely try
Oh, but Christmas
It always makes me cry
Oof. A Very Kacey Christmas ends with the piano-jazz torch chestnut “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” which everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Patti LaBelle to Idina Menzel has attacked with more firepower, but rarely more pathos. That one’ll get you, too. Musgraves’s version fades out with a full minute of forlorn ambient holiday bustle and a lazy chorus of “Auld Lang Syne,” a cheap but terribly effective trick, and at this point you are forgiven if you’re bawling around the Christmas tree. This is a nice, surprising, low-stakes win for a deceptively casual artist disinclined, at least for the moment, to play for higher ones. You will grow to appreciate the logic. Sometimes all you want is a Hula-Hoop.