Kacey Musgraves' new album, Pageant Material, is a brilliant piece of artwork, subtly walking a line between mainstream and alternative country, sure of itself while never kowtowing to either genre.
Thematically, Musgraves continues to explore new ground, building on her previous album, Same Trailer, Different Park. Her songs are nuanced examinations of balancing dreams and expectations and finding inner peace in a dog-eat-dog world. And, of course, minding your own business. Each of the songs on Pageant Material is a slice-of-life story with universal appeal that extends beyond the country genre.
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"Miserable" is a song for our time, tackling the paradoxical sentiment prevalent among millennials that you can't be happy unless you're unhappy. "High Time" is a tongue-in-cheek smoking anthem (let's call it what it is), crowned by a high, lonesome whistle. And what's left to be said about the hit single "Biscuits"? However, "Cup of Tea" seems like Musgrave's rehashed hit "Follow Your Arrow", right down to the whistling.
Musically, Pageant Material doesn't stray too far from Same Trailer, Different Park's comfortable and almost airy arrangements. The music is understated and complements the writing, never forcing itself upon the listener. You won't find any dime-a-dozen guitar solos or drum machines on Pageant Material.
Musgraves teams up again with her who's who of Nashville songwriters for Pageant Material to continue the strong songwriting that she displayed on Same Trailer, Different Park. The new album is full of typically Musgravian moments--clever twists and turns of phrase that delight. "I'm never late to the party when I'm late to the party with you," she sings on "Late to the Party" and our hearts give a little flutter. Her lyrics are so familiar and comfortable that you feel like you've already heard them; then she surprises with a turn of phrase that seems like it was custom made to be sewn onto throw pillows.
But that may be because we have heard them before. At times Musgraves is over-dependent upon popular modern catch phrases ("you do you, sorry I'm not sorry"), which makes her songs accessible, but limits them at the same time. Though smart with her songwriting, Musgraves never strays too far from center. She isn't Sturgill Simpson of "Turtles all the Way Down", but neither is she Kelsea Ballerini of "Love Me Like You Do". Brad Paisley and Miranda Lambert finally have competition in the upper echelon of performing singer-songwriters.
Pageant Material is bold. It is clever. It is the thoughtful record that mainstream country sorely needs. It is full of poignant tracks that work on musical and emotional levels, neither filler nor radio-crafted. In a genre littered with forgettable party anthems, Pageant Material subtly questions and reaffirms life. And this makes it one of the decade's best albums. But one can't help but wonder if Musgraves has more to offer, if she can shrug off her lyrical crutches and recycled ideas and embrace her brilliance.