With apologies to Cardi B, Cooking for Bae, and all them fancy towels, the best thing on Instagram in recent memory is the time country star Kacey Musgraves sang “My Heart Will Go On” and “Wayfaring Stranger” into a gold karaoke mic while suffering from food poisoning. The tone was sincere, if significantly muted, due, one assumes, to the nausea; Musgraves blamed the food poisoning on romaine lettuce, which she urged her followers to avoid. Despite the malaise, she belted out the chorus of “My Heart Will Go On” with enough gusto that it knocked the pink Instagram-filter headband off her head, though her energy level dimmed considerably by the time she got to “Always on My Mind” and “Ave Maria.” This is the sort of thing Johnny Cash would not have described as “great content,” but only because he wouldn’t have known what that meant.
Such is the casually outlandish charm of Kacey Musgraves, whose artistic endeavors are usually fueled by substances more potent than romaine. For example, her excellent fourth album, Golden Hour, is out this Friday, and includes a song called “Mother,” which she wrote after getting a text from her mom while tripping on LSD. “Bursting with empathy / I’m feeling everything / The weight of the world on my shoulders.” Musgraves sings softly over humble piano chords. “Hope my tears don’t freak you out / They’re just kinda comin’ out / It’s the music in me / And all of the colors.” This ain’t exactly Tame Impala in terms of sophistication, but it gets a sweetly psychedelic vibe across, with a dinky ascending melody that evokes both grade-school piano recitals and decidedly adult rabbit holes. The song’s over in less than a minute and a half and barely holds together even for that long. But the warm, fuzzy, out-of-body feeling sticks with you.
Golden Hour gets better the less you think about it, and the higher you allow it to get you. Musgraves has gone through two significant life changes recently: She got married, and she stopped trying to be clever. Her 2013 debut, Same Trailer Different Park, marked her as a songwriter’s songwriter and a quiet Nashville-via-Texas revolutionary. That record’s biggest hits, including the downtrodden small-town flamethrower “Merry Go ’Round” and the upbeat empowerment jam “Follow Your Arrow,” didn’t get her much radio play, but did help her swipe a Best Country Album Grammy from a peevish Taylor Swift and wear the Real Country Music Savior belt for a little while. She did all this with a throwback sense of wit and wordplay, even in her darker moments: “Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay / Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane / And Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down.” Even her second album, 2015’s scaled-down Pageant Material, offered such cheerfully barbed slogans as, “Mind your own biscuits / And life will be gravy,” suitable for crocheting onto Molotov cocktail rags.
Musgraves recently summarized this songwriting approach to Spin as “tying up everything in a bow.” But her fourth album — the follow-up to 2016’s surprisingly rad A Very Kacey Christmas — is intent on avoiding restraints of any kind. She describes Golden Hour as “galactic country,” driven by dreamy soft rock and less concerned with searing one-liners and loaded up with synthesizers and vocoders and other such planetarium fare. (Kacey’s love of weed has remained a constant, even on her wedding day.)
A major precedent here, consciously or not, is Voyager, the outstanding 2014 solo album from former Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis, which was mostly produced by Ryan Adams but mostly channeled the humid New Wave majesty of ’80s Fleetwood Mac. Another way to put it is that Golden Hour’s best song, by far, is a full-blown disco-pop monolith called “High Horse” wherein she lassos a mirror ball the size of the moon. Disco country is poised for a huge 2018, in fact: Kylie Minogue, of all people, has a splendid new Dollywood-via–Studio 54 jam called “Dancing” that’s attempting to break into Nashville as vivaciously as Kacey is attempting to break out.
Does any of this sound like country music to you? Does it not sound like country music to you? And is it likely, at this point, that the country-music-ness of Kacey Musgraves has long been the least interesting thing about her? Golden Hour continues her infatuation with dimebags-and-rhinestones kitsch (there’s a goofy song called “Velvet Elvis”), but it’s her spaciest and gauziest work yet, the banjos and pedal-steel accents now just bright points on towering constellations. “Slow Burn” kicks the record off at a pleasingly literal crawl — “I got the idea kind of from an acid trip,” she told Billboard — with the drums kicking in only midway through the second verse, while Kacey’s starry-eyed verses swap out cleverness for a blunt sort of wonder:
In Tennessee, the sun’s going down
But in Beijing they’re headed out to work
You know the bar down the street don’t close for an hour
We should take a walk, look at all the flowers
That’s not quotable the way Musgraves has traditionally been quotable, but it sets a celestial-stoner tone that’s unshakable even if you were trying to shake it. The love songs here, with titles like “Butterflies” and “Golden Hour,” are a little too mushy to have much impact, and call to mind the way Jenny Slate once described her then- and future-ex-boyfriend Chris Evans with the enormously gentle neg “He’s like primary colors.”
This album is designed to set a mood but not force any particular issue: You might zone out for whole songs at a time, only to find yourself startled by some pristine detail, like the synth riff that animates “Love Is a Wild Thing” or the banjo that delicately pushes “Oh, What a World” heavenward. One moment of unabashed cleverness even sneaks into the mix: “Space Cowboy,” a fragile and biting breakup tune with the sort of groaner punch line (“You can have your space, cowboy”) that Musgraves makes sound like Oscar Wilde.
Golden Hour is soft-focus but not unfocused, grounded in classic-country verve but wildly exploratory, awestruck but far from naive. “It can be easy to forget that right now there are literally jellyfish that light up, and plants that can change your mind, and Northern lights and shooting stars,” she told Billboard. “All these crazy beautiful things, like rainbows and shit — you know what I mean?” Plants that can change your mind is the key idea, there. She’s tried them all, and some have left her feeling invincible, while others have left her deathly ill. And they’ve all left her floating in the stars, reaching blissfully for the ground.