By Brendan Nagle
When I hear the phrase “golden hour” my first thought is of Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece, “Days of Heaven.” The film’s infamously troubled production is due in part to Malick and his cinematographers’ insistence that most of the scenes be shot during golden hour, just after the sun has begun to set, but before it’s all the way down. It has a unique beauty — the sky is filled with warm oranges and reds and the light is especially soft — but the name is misleading. In fact, golden hour usually lasts only 20 minutes or so. Of course this made filming extremely difficult, but golden hour’s fleeting nature is exactly what the film was attempting to capture. The days on the farm are blissful and heavenly, but the idyllic moment that the characters are living is threatened by an impending doom: night is on the horizon, and eventually hellish, apocalyptic violence ravages the farm and its inhabitants. The film uses golden hour to evoke beauty, but specifically beauty that can not last. While the tragedy and pastoral setting of “Days of Heaven” seem fit for a country-western song, rising country star Kacey Musgraves takes a contrary approach to the transitory beauty of a sunset with her new album “Golden Hour.”
More than anything else, “Golden Hour” is about Musgraves’ new husband, Nashville singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly. It is an album largely about feeling good and likewise it is an album that feels good to listen to. On the first single “Butterflies,” written only a week after meeting her future husband, Musgraves sings about butterflies in her stomach. But she flips the familiar love song trope, using the butterfly’s metamorphosis as a metaphor for the freeing power of their love. Her partner untangles the strings around her wings, and allows her to fly.
“Butterflies” hints at new sonic directions with its breezy synth melody, but Musgraves only gets more daring as the album goes on. The next track, “Oh What a World,” feels like a moment of country futurism — the jarring use of a Daft Punk-esque vocoder strikes a synthetic contrast to the organic subject matter of the song, yet it works remarkably well. “Golden Hour” finds Musgraves collaborating with a new songwriting duo, Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, who give her songs glossy pop flourishes, like programmed drums (“Wonder Woman,” “Happy & Sad”), and lush string arrangements (“Slow Burn”).
By far her most adventurous song to date is “High Horse,” a disco-country kiss-off inspired by an obsession with the Bee Gees. Grounded by a four on the floor drum pattern, she sounds like Carly Rae Jepsen with a twang. On “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” off of her previous record, Musgraves took shots at the toxic masculinity plaguing the genre she loves so much, and “High Horse,” though more subtle, feels like a spiritual successor. “Oh I bet you think you’re John Wayne,” she sings, “showing up and shooting down everybody.” By invoking John Wayne, a masculine, conservative icon of country-western, she points to a contemporary culture that has doubled down on the worst parts of itself (think of the bro-country movement). The man being called out is “classic in the wrong way.” The song represents much of Musgraves’ appeal: she is forward-thinking, both sonically and thematically — enough to attract fans who may not typically enjoy country — but she also has a deep reverence for the genre’s roots. She cites Sade as an influence alongside Dolly Parton and John Prine.
Though there are outliers, like “High Horse,” or the standout ballad “Space Cowboy,” the bulk of this batch of songs are concerned with the indomitable ecstasy of love. On “Love is a Wild Thing,” Musgraves is awestruck at love’s power. She marvels at its relentless energy. “Oh What a World” finds sublime, almost unbelievable, pleasures in the “magic all around us.” But with “Happy & Sad” she acknowledges the impending doom represented in “Days of Heaven,” and calls her blissful feelings into question. She is “having the time of (her) life,” but she knows that “everything that goes up must come down.” She fears the inevitable dissolution of her golden hour. But on the title track she offers a definitive rebuke to Terrence Malick’s notion. “I used to get sad and lonely when the sun went down,” she sings, directly addressing the darkness that follows the sunset, “But it’s different now / ’Cause I love the light that I’ve found in you.” In her love, Musgraves finds comfort, and light. With her lover at her side she “know(s) everything’s gonna be alright” — he is her golden hour. In “Days of Heaven,” fire is a source of destruction, scorching the farm’s wheat fields, but when Musgraves says, “you’ve set my world on fire,” she means it as a positive. Fire is not destructive, but a symbol of warmth and excitement.
Musgraves’ infatuation may come across as sappy, but it’s also endearingly earnest; she is enchanted by the world and it’s hard not to join in her delight. “Golden Hour” is itself like the time for which it’s titled — it’s warm and beautiful — but it also functions as a challenge to the ephemerality that we typically associate with bliss. Perhaps through love, she argues, golden hour can last forever.