From its opening notes, Kacey Musgraves' Pageant Material sounds like a sigh of relief. Musgraves' voice is largely unadorned, her sound analog and organic—she is backed by a small band, sweetened by pedal steel and the occasional string section. The songs are not overworked: the choruses do not explode, they merely unfurl. Her near-perfect major-label debut, 2013's Same Trailer Different Park, positioned her as something akin to the country Kendrick Lamar—the hyperbole was that she could save country music from itself. Musgraves stands in comically stark relief to some of her CMA-hoisting peers, and her ascendance does certainly feel corrective at a time when bro-country's red cup runneth over with EDM's structural dynamics, NRA talking points, and "rapping." She's hailed as a new model, one seemingly reverse-engineered from Nashville's Top 40: a perpetually stoned real girl, fixating on fine '70s countrypolitan flourishes and focusing on self-acceptance.
Musgraves grew up rural and working class in East Texas and firmly orients herself as someone not-that-far removed from a small town fate. Country, historically, espouses nothin'-fancy humility, but in 2015, these qualities are often illustrated by naming things—cheap beer, old trucks—that signify one's down-homeness. Mainstream country is currently a few years deep into a circa-2004 hip-hop problem, where recitation of the familiar nouns of late-stage capitalism stand as totems, or replace narrative altogether (instead of "I slang in my white tee," it's "White picket fence house on this dirt.") The exactitude of purchasing power and status is being GPS'd at all times. The lone examples of this behavior on Pageant Material are a citation of Willie Nelson (who duets on his own lovely "Are You Sure"), the invocation of a room shared with Gram Parsons' ghost on "Dime Store Cowgirl", and the title track double-entendre of "the only Crown is in my glass." When Musgraves sings "Just 'cause it don't cost a lot/ Don't mean it's cheap," on "Dime Store Cowgirl" it's as much a personal thesis about simple values as a repudiation of the economy around her.
Musgraves' "not"-ness is the pivot point of her artistic identity. Her songs exude a relaxed resonance because they have a lot less to prove. They feel personal, and you can locate Musgraves the artist in them ("And if I end up goin' down in flames/ Well, at least I know I did it my own way"). Mainstream country often poses an Us vs. Them chasm meant to alienate those who cannot identify with the lifestyle or values represented; for Musgraves, openness and acceptance are the paradigm. She rejects the mandates of Top 40, but maintains the hallmarks of country tradition, which makes liking her work easy and exacting critique tricky. A lot of country is about singing about what you aren't (or rather "ain't")—which she does often here, and most potently on the title track. One of the remarkable things about Musgraves is not how much she has deviated from country norms, but the way she expands them.
The most obvious way, and the one that press and the public have latched onto, is the feminist-at-her-liberty narratives with songs (most of which are co-written by her producers, Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, who were also behind the boards on Same Trailer). While this is worth noting and celebrating, in Musgraves' case it's overstated simplification, one that continually pits her as a straw(wo)man against the easy villainy of bro country™, instead of within a canon that spans from Kitty Wells' "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" to Loretta Lynn's "Fist City" to Miranda Lambert's "Kerosene". With Pageant Material there is less good-for-the-gander agenda than anticipated. Musgraves is confident and self-contained, but she's not measuring herself against anyone's standards but her own (the Big Machine-subtweeting "Good 'Ol Boys Club", and it's chaser, "Cup of Tea"), an idea that she references on most every song on the album. But under the microscope it's more than confidence, it's more than self-help self-love maxims. It's a disregard of the system; it's shrugging off the mantle of Southern Girlhood ("I'd rather lose for what I am/ Than win for what I ain't" she sings on the title track).
And unlike many in her cohort, Musgraves doesn't hoist herself up as a bad girl. Not because she isn't one, but because in her world that dichotomy doesn't exist. Instead she spends much of the record refusing the obligation to a good reputation ("Biscuits", "Late to the Party", or boasting "I'm always higher than my hair" on "Pageant Material"). She celebrates an authentic self expression above all—Musgraves' tendentious realness is what lends the album its quiet politics.
Tussling with her persona is fun and engaging work, but it's Musgraves' songcraft that provides the whoa moments. She has the ability to shift a phrase—like "family is family" or "you can take me out of the country, but you can't take the country out of me"—out of cliche and into poignancy, or hell, even into something deep. She can pin 10 of these plainspoken lines back-to-back, without ever straining the song or its narrative or appearing to do any hard work at all. Her ability to pair song to sentiment is fairly flawless.
Pageant Material is a bit smoother than Same Trailer and musically there is less to grab on to. The album's maudlin center—the triptych of "Somebody to Love", "Miserable", and "Die Fun"—gives it some gravitas. Her voice on these world-weary bits, especially the impeccably crafted "Miserable", give the album some of the heft it could use a little more of. It's an easy listen that clocks its 14 tracks swiftly, and can feel a little lightweight on repeated listens.
The binary of "good" country vs. "bad" is one we'd be wise to retire, and is the wrong narrative to frame a songwriter of Musgraves' caliber. She remixes all that we might call corny and shopworn in other, less deft hands. She's making gold records in service to small-town DGAF burner girls who managed to half get their shit together. Which is a truly strange universe for a pop star to be working in—nestling in with the ex-Swiftie fuck-up fringe, young women imagining beyond the dead ends and expectations set before them. While much of women's work in mainstream pop is hung up on pleasure (still important!) and what disposable income nets them (ditto), Musgraves is musing in a more quotidian slog of struggle and acceptance—the work of the self. It's a strange and forgiving album, less toothsome than the ones that preceded it, but Musgraves' resistance makes this album important, even when it's imperfect.
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