Kacey Musgraves is certainly having a golden moment.
Her third LP, “Golden Hour,” was album of the year at the Country Music Association Awards and the runaway winner in a nationwide poll of country critics. Entertainment Weekly and American Songwriter acclaimed it the best album of 2018 — in any genre. Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and PopMatters gave it a silver medal, ranking it No. 2.
The crowning night of Musgraves’ career may come Feb. 10 at the Grammy Awards, where “Golden Hour” is a finalist for album of the year. At least two oddsmakers give it the second-best chance of winning.
But I don’t think she deserves the Grammy. For me, “Golden Hour” was not a shining moment. In fact, it was a major disappointment.
Musgraves, who performs a sold-out concert Saturday at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul, was one of the best things to happen to country music in years — so fresh, so cheeky, yet rooted in time-tested traditions.
I adored her 2013 debut, “Same Trailer, Different Park,” and her sophomore album “Pageant Material” (2015). Backward-sounding yet forward-thinking, she was irresistibly clever.
“Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay, brother’s hooked on Mary Jane, and Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down,” she cooed in her first hit, “Merry Go ’Round,” about the boredom of small-town life that keeps repeating itself.
Even more impressive was the conservative-piercing single “Follow Your Arrow,” which advocated smoking joints if you’ve got ’em and loving whomever you love — a rare Nashville hit that touched on same-sex love and weed. She raised a few eyebrows slinging that song on the 2013 CMA Awards, where TV censored the line about “roll up a joint.”
Guess it didn’t matter: At the 2014 CMAs, “Follow Your Arrow” was named song of the year. And “Same Trailer, Different Park” snared the Grammy for best country album.
If the music wasn’t endearing enough, there was Musgraves’ stage presence — an updated Dale Evans, with fringe and cowgirl boots, illuminated with Christmas lights. It was a perfectly cute/kitschy image to match the tone of her tunes.
The follow-up album, “Pageant Material,” confirmed that this Texan was the real deal. Smart, funny, original, clever and a little bit subversive, she definitely likes to push buttons and tweak funny bones.
“Biscuits” was seasoned with corn and the punch line “Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.”
“Good Ol’ Boys Club” slammed the music biz; “Pageant Material” talked about her teen years; and “Dime Store Cowgirl” showed her commitment to her roots. She was equal parts small-town homespun charm and modern open-minded cowgirl.
Same singer, different vibe
Then last March, “Golden Hour” arrived, showcasing a made-over Musgraves. One, she was recently married and crazy in love at age 29. Two, she sounded about as country as Neil Young in his non-grunge mode. The music is gauzy, hazy stoner pop, seasoned with a banjo here and pedal steel guitar there. Three, she abandoned the old-school look in favor of something stylish and contemporary.
Nothing wrong with a makeover. Props for trying to evolve. But only when it makes your music more compelling. In this case, the slowly paced album is heavy on ballads and medium-tempo tunes. The only up-tempo piece is “High Horse,” with its galloping drums and disco-lite sound and clever kiss-off about someone who thinks he’s John Wayne, “showing up and shooting down,” but who should just “giddy up and ride straight out of this town.”
It’s one of only four keepers out of 13 selections. “Rainbow,” the closing number, is a piano ballad that begs to be a jazz standard. “Velvet Elvis” and “Space Cowboy” are closer to Musgraves’ previous standard, bursting with emotion and savvy turns of phrase.
“Space Cowboy” delivers the spot-on couplet: “And boots weren’t made for sitting by the door/Since you don’t want to stay anymore.” Then she gives him the boot: “You can have your space, cowboy.” A melancholy piano ballad with languorous pedal steel guitar, it may be the most country-sounding song here. Not surprisingly, it was named top single in the national critics poll conducted by Nashville Scene (in which I participated), and it’s vying for the Grammy for best country song.
As for the rest of “Golden Hour,” there are too many unclever and uninspired songs, reading like lyrics Taylor Swift might have written at age 14.
“It’s a lonely feeling without you,” she croons in “Lonely Weekend.”
“Out of the blue, I fell for you,” she rhymes in “Butterflies.”
“You can’t find it sitting on a shelf in a store,” she points out in “Love Is a Wild Thing.”
These are lines that Hallmark might reject.
Is this a case of happiness getting in the way of writing superior songs? That’s an affliction many songwriters have suffered over the years, whether in pop, rock or country. Maybe imagination, not life, has to fuel the words of a songwriter who has found bliss.
At the same time she was being wildly acclaimed, the made-over Musgraves was underwhelming last year on arena tours opening for country favorite Little Big Town at Target Center in April and rock star Harry Styles at Xcel Energy Center in July. Her performances were devoid of the unstoppable charm she showed in several previous Twin Cities appearances.
So listen to “Golden Hour” if you’ve got it. But I ask: Is this really Musgraves’ finest hour? Has her time come and gone? Or will she follow her arrow into a new and unassailable direction next time?