If you’re ever in the mood to celebrate your doughty northern ability to endure lousy weather—and as a Minnesotan when are you ever not?—I highly recommend going to see a touring country musician in wintertime.
“They tell me this is summer for y’all?” Kacey Musgraves asked a sold-out Palace Theatre with disbelief, referring to the non-life-threatening 30-degree day we’d all just enjoyed on Saturday, shortly after congratulating us for surviving the “polar shit” she’d toured herself right into the heart of.
Musgraves is now four albums (including a wonderful set of Christmas songs) into a career that’s strolled coolly around the perimeter of country music, and her Saturday night show detoured occasionally into the past—“Merry Go Round,” her small-town-as-dead-end commentary, was inevitable; the whistled hook of the tumbleweed-watchin’ “High Time” was a melodic peak. But beginning with “Slow Burn,” a suggestion to downshift a gear sprinkled with impressionistic childhood memories (“Grandma cried when I pierced my nose”), Musgraves concentrated on Golden Hour, playing all 13 songs from her well-received 2018 album.
“Well-received” is an understatement. Golden Hour is also a golden mean: Its sound captures both a pop fan’s idea of country and a country fan’s idea of pop. That unclassifiable niche hasn’t done wonders for her radio airplay (though you can mostly blame the he-man woman-haters club of country programmers for that). But it’s upped the adoration of Musgraves’ fans, who made for the singing-alongingest of crowds, and even won over the sort of music critics who prefer their country gals wronged and toting shotguns—Golden Hour is, among other things, probably the most pleasant critically acclaimed album in years.
Like any mood, “pleasant” can be an artistic achievement. Offering soft-rock as self-care, Golden Hour is a contented hum of an album you can crawl into like a warm nook. I’ve joked that its contact high makes me feel the way weed was always supposed to (but never did), but if it’s a stoner album, its buzz owes equally to the mild Sunday morning drowsiness of new love.
For all that, there’s a tinge of anxiety to these songs. (Weed’ll do that to you sometimes.) “Lonely Weekend” captures that not-quite-blue but out-of-sorts mood of feeling unmoored when you don’t know what to do with your down time. (When Musgraves sings about “fear of missing out” she quaintly puts a “the” before it, like when your dad talks about “the Facebook.”) The title of “Happy & Sad” speaks for itself, and the cautionary “Wonder Woman” looks cooly past the honeymoon: “We rarely don’t ever see eye to eye/We’re going to.”
As I’d suspected going in, what wasn’t quite duplicable in concert—even with an excellent sound mix and expert touring band—was the immersive warmth of Golden Hour, that balance of shimmer, reverb, and sustain that earns the album its right to be titled after that perfectly lit moment in the day that every photographer prizes. It’s this sound (“so luxuriant it verges on hallucinogenic,” I called it last year) that makes an impact before any lyric or melody sets in, and absent that, the seams of this material occasionally showed.
Lyrics that insufficiently tweaked commonplaces or took shortcuts stuck out. ("Is there a word for the way that I'm feeling tonight?"—I dunno, Kacey, you’re the one writing the song.) Over the course of the night, it was hard not to notice that Musgraves consistently works a specific area of her register in a specific way. And though nobody ever complains about hearing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (nobody worth paying attention to, anyway), Musgraves conveyed more “wanting to” than “having” in her cover, even with an assist from opener Liza Anne.
That said, the best of the new songs, like the heart-rent pledge of acceptance “Space Cowboy,” stood solidly on their own. And as a performer, Musgraves owned the stage throughout. With the bell-bottom jeans and long straight hair of a musical guest on The Mike Douglas Show, she was chicly retro, and the complementary lighting scheme shifted from pastels to fluorescents to rainbow spectrums. Her band introductions were thorough, charming, and wide-ranging as she touched on who smoked the most weed and who liked memes the best, that the pedal steel player was once a librarian and her bassist’s woodworking skills are viewable on Instagram. (You’d be an idiot not to let Musgraves write your Tinder profile for you.)
She changed up the pace by gathering the band, dressed as-ever in matching suits with sparkly shoes, downstage for a little acoustic set. A cello smartly impersonated a fiddle solo; “Family Is Family” was perfect as ever. (“They're there when you're married, divorced, and remarried/You fall out of touch, but then someone gets buried.”)
At times, Musgraves tiptoed on the edge of getting political. Is there a nicer word than “dog whistle” for when artists suggest they share your politics without explicitly stating it? Because that’s what happened when she asked “Do you ever feel like we live in a fucking crazy world sometimes?” before “Love Is a Wild Thing,” and summed up her pledge of resistance with “No, we will not let you take our joy.”
She introduced her closing song more pointedly. “Country music isn’t exactly always the most inclusive place,” she said before “Follow Your Arrow,” as casually all-inclusive a country hit as you could ask. It makes being yourself sound like a blast rather than a duty, thanks to its offhand craftiness—how it follows “roll up a joint” with a shrugged “or don’t,” and “kiss lots of girls” with a winked “if that’s what you’re into.” When the audience took over the final chorus, its mass endorsement of self-acceptance was something faintly utopian.
Musgraves returned for an encore with “Rainbow,” a piano ballad with a slyly “Desperado”-skirting melody that gently reminds a pal not to hang on to past miseries, and “High Horse,” a stylish country-disco kiss off to anyone who thinks they’re “cooler than anybody else.” Both demonstrated the easy touch that’s at the core of Musgraves’ appeal. She doesn’t want to slap sense into her sulky friend or boot the ass of her hifalutin foe. She just wants to suggest that moments of sustained low-key bliss are within reach for the open-hearted and even-keeled. And that’s no small thing—even her gift is to convince us she believes that it is.
See our full photo gallery from the concert here.
Happy & Sad
Merry Go 'Round
Oh, What a World
Family Is Family
Love Is a Wild Thing
Girls Just Want to Have Fun (Cyndi Lauper cover)
Follow Your Arrow