Country's radical voice returns with balanced sixth

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Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material

Kacey Musgraves meets an ancient country crossroads on her second major label album: having found success singing about suffocating small-town life, where next? 2013’s Same Trailer, Different Park offered a precisely observed portrait of Musgraves’ young life in Golden, Texas: population approx 300, best known for its annual sweet potato festival. “We get bored so we get married/Just like dust, we settle in this town”, she sang on her poetic breakout single “Merry Go Round”. Even if the waitresses gossiped and the slipped-halo churchgoers frowned, Musgraves sympathised with her tradition-abiding characters while also cheering for gay relationships and getting stoned. Her stories were neat and funny without falling into country moralising: the friends-with-benefits of “It Is What It Is” didn’t get pregnant or wreck any homes, but decided to keep hooking up “‘til something better comes along”.

Country music radio refused to playlist this comparatively radical voice, but the record won Musgraves two Grammys, fans who had previously never touched the genre, and support slots both with Willie Nelson (who guests on an untitled bonus track here) and Katy Perry, indicating her place on the sliding scale between country gold and pop sparkle. The first two songs on Pageant Material deal astutely with this change in fortunes. Opener “High Time” sets the record’s rich, swooning tone – something like Glen Campbell at the luau – and sees the 27-year-old singing about ditching her flashy clothes to “[catch] up with the old me”. She sings of meeting Willie Nelson and travelling the world on “Dime Store Cow Girl”, but admits, “maybe for a minute I got too big for my britches”. So back home she goes, her perspective shifted by distance: on Same Trailer.. small towns were a trap, but here they offer lessons in surviving anything life throws at you.

Sadly, Pageant Material lacks some of the specific characters and touchstones that made Same Trailer… so sublime. There are several indistinct love songs, the shuffling “Family Is Family” boils down to ‘can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em’, and the mournful pedal steel of “Somebody To Love” has a similar structure, with opposing qualities (angels, devils; thorns, roses) stacked against each other to find humanity in the space between. Jaunty sing-along “Biscuits” is a funny warning against taking pleasure in your neighbour’s misfortune (“mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy”), though it feels too much like a rehash of Same Trailer…’s “Follow Your Arrow” without its radical queer-love message.

Songs about small towns usually come with some aspirational breakout message, but Musgraves dispenses with the idea that a proper job or any amount of possessions can bring redemption or happiness. The noir-ish “This Town” is a reminder that just because your area’s on the up (“a good Mexican restaurant, a beauty shop or two”) doesn’t mean that neighbourly kindness should be forgotten. On the sweet “Cup Of Tea”, Musgraves lists what would conventionally sound like a litany of failures – old clothes, crap job, reputation for being easy – only to suggest taking comfort in individuality instead of pat redemption in the form of god or gold at the end of the rainbow. And the goofy title track is Musgraves at her sharp, funny finest, paying lip service to smiling beauty queens over dreamy acoustic guitar, before admitting, “it ain’t that I don’t care about world peace, but I don’t see how I can fix it in my swimsuit on a stage”, demonstrating her rare gift for realism and empathy without cynicism.

Saying that, Musgraves shines when she calls out her enemy – dishonesty and pessimism. Pageant Material’s standout track is the strutting “Good Ol’ Boys’ Club”, a triumphant takedown of country’s corrupt backhanders from someone who’s succeeded without them. The only character who doesn’t receive sympathy here is the glass-half-full protagonist of “Miserable”, who Musgraves, the eternal optimist, has to cut loose. But as if to absolve her appearing judgmental, the following song, “Die Fun”, seems as if it should be a triumphant kiss off (“let’s love hard, live fast, die fun”) but it’s set to forlorn streaks of pedal steel, and sees her trying to make drinking and fleeing seem like romantic rebellion rather than dead-end fate: she’s as prone to fatalism as anyone.

If liberal listeners were attracted by the idea of Musgraves as a rebel voice, they might be disappointed by the message of Pageant Material, which is essentially: life’s too hard and short to waste time judging others. But as “Good Ol’ Boys’ Club” points out, Musgraves’ success is radical in its own way. Today’s most successful country acts are big-hatted men singing fairytale homilies about trucks and broads. Musgraves’ willingness to address a life built on knotty contradictions give her songs resonance far beyond Golden’s borders.

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