Kacey Musgraves, "Pageant Material" (Mercury Nashville)
When Kacey Musgraves showed up two years ago singing about drags of weed and same-sex smooches, she wasn't necessarily plotting an insurrection. At the time, the soon-to-be country star said she simply wanted to "create the new normal." Musgraves' sturdy second album, "Pageant Material," finds the 26-year-old retrenching in her own brand of normal. Set to a series of svelte, midtempo country songs, she sticks to a message that's important and banal: Be yourself.
Because all of those small towns that have been glorified in all of those big country hits? They're actually filled with judgey, backbiting jerks. And those people should be ignored. "You can't set sail if your anchor's down," Musgraves sings on "Miserable," a new song about those who seem only to derive happiness from being just that. But throughout "Pageant Material," Musgraves hews so tightly to this theme that she might as well be stitching sassy truisms onto throw pillows. Her folksy style of shade throwing is a fine art and a necessity in Nashville, an industry town with a low tolerance for boat rockers and an allergy for game changers. The biggest bomb Musgraves drops on "Pageant Material" is aimed directly at the Nashville cognoscenti through a song called "Good Ol' Boys Club," in which she declares that being "another gear in a big machine don't sound like fun to me." It's a winking jab at Big Machine, the record label Taylor Swift calls home.
This posture feels a little same-old, but we have to assume it's purposeful. But if you listen to an entire country album wondering about its strategic intent, it means that the music hasn't really whisked you off your feet. And on occasion, it does. Musgraves can do dazzling things with her singing voice, and she knows how to sell a punch line with deadpan sweetness. And because her singing rarely feels overtly performative, she often sounds like she's reciting these songs to herself in an attempt to figure out who she is.
So who is she now? The album's strongest cut, "Dime Store Cowgirl," comes closest to answering. "It don't matter where I'm going," Musgraves sings. "I still call my hometown home." That might seem like faux humility, but the song ultimately suggests that Musgraves doesn't want to be a part of any narrative other than her own. Maybe she's singing all this "be yourself" stuff into the mirror. And maybe she hasn't figured out who that self is just yet. Do we ever?
Musgraves plays at the Minnesota Zoo's Amphitheater 7:30 p.m. Thu.
Chris Richards, Washington Post
Neil Young & Promise of the Real, "The Monsanto Years" (Reprise)
Young follows his muse, or in this case, his rage. This is an album-length rant, recorded with Willie Nelson's sons Lukas and Micah, in which the Farm Aid co-founder targets his venom mostly at agricultural giant Monsanto (and also Starbucks) in songs that often sound like he wrote them on the spot. Although Young's anger about industrial farming's use of genetically modified organisms is often awkwardly expressed, the project teems with the ragged energy that has often made this most instinctive rocker's projects great. But there's simply too much one-sided, subtle-as-a-flying-mallet fulmination to compel repeated listening. However, that doesn't mean that these songs live won't result in another great Young show.
Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer