A sumptuous dive into classic country that's also an exploration of identity, growing and exploring the idea of self within the sentimentalized past and our social-media-driven present.
One myth that persists in music listening is the idea that artists arrive fully formed, that from their debut album we can learn and understand everything we need to know about them. Then with subsequent albums we can go about the business of evaluating them against the standard set up by that debut, judging them by what we understood them to tell us they were. With songs about small-town social pressures and hypocrisy, and a impactful single about nonconformity referencing same-sex kissing, Kacey Musgraves’ successful, acclaimed major-label debut Same Trailer Different Park pegged her to some as a social commentator or socially aware poet of the trailerpark; what Robert Christgau referred to in his review as “conscious country”.
If you have that firmly in mind when first listening to the follow-up Pageant Material, it might require a shift in perception to prevent disappointment, or else you’ll be wont to fall back on the "sophomore slump" trap of thinking. To set yourself up for this one, think instead of the truisms and clichés she played around with, or sometimes just gave out straight, on the debut. Think about the prettiest, softest melodies from the debut, more than the bits of rock and blues crunch or the down-home banjos. Think of Musgraves next to neon cactuses on stage and in awards-show performances, playfully projecting C&W past and aesthetic into a pop-star persona. Think of the fact that, after her debut, she opened for Katy Perry on some dates and Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss on others.
Or better yet, don’t prepare. One of life’s great pleasures is being surprised. And Pageant Material is very much about pleasure. From the start, we’re dropped into a sumptuous atmosphere, where the focus is on arrangements and her starlit singing. “High Time” pulls us in with lush strings in an old West setting, in a song about the prototypical country theme of slowing down and rolling along through life like a gently flowing brook. It also introduces the album’s chief lyrical theme: the concept of self. Finding yourself, knowing who you are in an era of social-media personas and persistent connectivity. She sings, “I’m gonna turn off my phone / start catching up with the old me,” an era-appropriate version of country’s sense of nostalgia.
That song also has some ‘getting high’ double entendres, which are scattered here and there across the record like little carefree smiles. There’s a sense of humor to Pageant Material but also a serious dedication to mood. The style of the song, and album, might seem more pop than country, until you go back to your country-music textbooks and remember that country as a genre has always been pop, in a sense, and strings and lushness are nothing new to country, more like an old friend that’s been pushed aside for a while.
The third song reaches an early height in string-laden luxury. “Late to the Party” seems so simple on the surface -- a slight love song with the conceit that being late to a party doesn’t feel like being late when they’re together. Yet it conveys ease, intimacy, love and even her favored theme of nonconformity in such a sublime way.
There’s a similar quietude and grace lurking throughout, especially pronounced on the mid-LP trio that forms the album’s heart. “Somebody to Love”, “Miserable”, and “Die Fun” are an interesting study, proof also of the performing and songwriting strength here. Musgraves is collaborating with some of the best songwriters working in country and in popular music today, especially Luke Laird, Shane McAnally, Brandy Clark and Josh Osborne. “Somebody to Love” adopts a serious (but not over-serious) tone about finding commonality among people. A creative kind of "sad and lonely" song, it studies the human tendency for self-analysis and inner struggle. It’s a portrait of the lonely that also feels like generational self-analysis: “we’re all paper / we’re all scissors / we’re all fighting with our mirrors.”
A character study of someone who’s only happy when miserable, which points inward and outward (like most songs here), “Miserable” has minimalist guitar that screams of the moment in a concert where the lead singer is alone on stage with just a guitar, while also unexpectedly evoking folk artists of the 1990s like Ani DiFranco and Tracy Chapman -- but with overwhelming atmosphere and a dose of Taylor Swift’s tuneful exercises in perspective-change. Elsewhere on the album, there are quick moments reminiscent of Dar Williams, Indigo Girls and other similar artists; that despite the album’s overall demeanor recalling a deep dive into the softest country balladry of yore, hearkening back to Ray Price or earlier. The album ends more in that vein, with a splendidly reverent cover of the Willie Nelson and Buddy Emmons-penned “Are You Sure” that features Nelson himself, a bonus song Musgraves has referred to as a gift to fans.
Taken in a different musical direction, “Die Fun” could be a top 40 hit for Swift or Perry. It projects the practiced recklessness of other recent pop hits (say, Fun.’s “We Are Young” or, obviously, Ke$ha's "Die Young"), but does so with a very focused, Musgrave-ian sense of both self-aware detachment and lived-in thoughtfulness. And it’s less focused on youth than on preserving the feeling of it; keeping alive despite the creeping forward of time. There’s a bad pun in the title (“let’s love hard / live fast / die fun”) that the song makes entirely palatable somehow, even logical and triumphant.
Clichés are here, in a mindful way, used for effect, and occasionally irony. The songs directed outside the self especially do this, taking a questioning tone to seemingly simple statements about rural life (see “This Town”) or family affairs. “Family Is Family” feels like a list of truisms about the messiness of family relations, but it’s also funny, caring and critical, with a tune that accentuates these qualities.
The title song “Pageant Material” fits in here, too, as a funny poke at pageant culture and Southern mores (it begins, “there’s certain things you’re supposed to learn if you’re a girl who grows up in the South”) that doubles as a funny poke at herself and her image. In a way this album feels like Musgraves' star turn, her fully growing into her celebrity, which makes the cover of her with a tiara seem appropriate even as she tells us, “I’d rather lose for what I am / than win for what I ain’t”. Her self-definition as an artist is an inescapable part of the storyline on Pageant Material; she better defines her persona than on the prior album, while dazzling us more with the surfaces and the interiors of the songs.
Empathy and generosity are somehow central parts of her personality as an artist; “Cup of Tea”, the last song before the Willie Nelson ‘gift’, exemplifies this but also demonstrates her way of taking cliches and polishing them up for us, almost against our better inclinations. Which brings us back to how artists grow and how we as music fans handle it. With Pageant Material that question almost seems besides the point. Her music is constructing itself before our ears, filling itself out with complexity, regardless of how we want to judge it. It’s another way the album seems to be reacting to the cultural moment and standing outside of it, on its own two feet.