PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

Kacey Musgraves: Pageant Material

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.


Kacey Musgraves

Pageant Material

Label: Mercury Nashville
US Release Date: 2015-06-23
UK Release Date: 2015-06-22
Amazon
iTunes

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.

9

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.