In place of a more traditional year-end best-of list, Talkhouse has asked some of our favorite artists to choose their favorite album of 2018 and tell us all about it.
—The Talkhouse Team
When Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour came out in March, I was in between surgeries and in the middle of one of the most tumultuous years of my life. I was recovering from one unsuccessful procedure and anticipating another, in a haze of painkillers and uncertainty, and at the same time realizing that to keep my soul in tact I had to move out of my house and leave my long-term relationship. Musgraves has described this album as coming off of “being in this golden hour of my personal life, where all these things are finally coming to fruition,” and I was in exactly the opposite place. It was all burning down around me. Which is why I think her gentle optimism was something I desperately needed to hear.
Musgraves’ clear voice, tender and intricate melodies, and beautifully hopeful, yet realistic vision felt like a beam of light peeking through the door of the dark room that was my 2018. The songs are so well-crafted that they seem effortless, though I know each perfectly-chosen word must have been poured over a million times. It’s a masterpiece that comforted me over and over. I’m usually one to completely wallow in heartbreak music in the wake of a breakup (and I definitely listened to Cardi B’s “Thru Your Phone” about a million times) but this record felt like going to therapy. It’s an album that rewards multiple listens; a new lyric stands out to me every time with understated cleverness in metaphor and the quiet moments she chooses to marvel in. Also, part of it was recorded in a studio above Sheryl Crow’s horse stable, which feels way too magical to be true.
“Slow Burn” starts off the record as sort of a calming mission statement that things don’t have to move as quickly as the news/record/social media cycle tell us they should. As a person who’s always looking for a quick spark, for things to happen fast, Kacey felt like a trusted guide softly convincing me to take my time and let the world turn rather than seek quick solutions. I’m learning to be alright with a slow burn.
On “Butterflies,” Musgraves takes the simple cliche of feeling butterflies in your stomach for a new love and investigates it deeply. What does it mean when you finally feel the butterflies? She uses imagery of being brought out of a chrysalis, untangling strings round her wings to show the long period of growth and doubt that has to come before you can appreciate the butterflies, which seem so much more momentous when she’s singing “Now you’re lifting me up instead of holding me down/Stealing my heart instead of stealing my crown.” After a few days of heart to hearts and extolling the virtues of Kacey with my friend Rose in Vancouver over the summer, we learned the song together to play at a show. Harmonizing with her singing “Now I remember what it feels like to fly” felt like wishing, like if I sang those words it would mend my broken body and heart and I could feel the possibility Kacey is singing about again.
I do this thing when I’m listening to music where I’ll find one song that can make me cry and I’ll play it on repeat, over and over again until I’ve completely mined all the feeling from it. I did that with “Space Cowboy.” The song starts with a devastating image “You look out the window while I look at you,” and goes on to quietly let go of a love she knows is no longer right. The best storytellers can tell a whole story in just a simple moment, and that one says it all. I always think about the line that guts me: “after the gold rush, there ain’t no reason to stay.” After you’ve mined all the beautiful things from a relationship, what are you doing still hanging around? There’s no use panning for gold in a river that has long since dried up.
“Love is a Wild Thing” muses further on that blissful and devastating feeling that’s inspired so much art. “You can’t find it sitting on a shelf in a store/if you try to hide it, it’s gonna shine even more.” She investigates more ambiguous emotions too, the ones that live in quiet moments. On “Happy & Sad” she wonders in being brought to the emotional highs but worries about how much more devastating the loss will be if it is taken away.
In July I flew to Sacramento to say goodbye to one of my favorite people on earth, my grandma, and listened to the song “Mother” on repeat and sobbed on the plane. It’s a strange little song, played on piano and clocking in at only a minute and 18 seconds, that ends with the lines “I’m just sitting here thinking ’bout the time that’s slipping/And missing my mother/And she’s probably sitting there/Thinking ’bout the time that’s slipping/And missing her mother.”
“Wonder Woman” was a slow burn for me, one that didn’t stand out at first but grew on me with the power of how well executed Kacey’s exploration of metaphors can be. Much like “Velvet Elvis” where she compares her lover to a picture on a wall (Soft to the touch/Feels like love/Knew it as soon as I felt it”) here she uses all the imagery surrounding that DC superhero to basically say, in the words of Courtney Barnett, “put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you.” It’s the smaller lines in this song that cut deep: “I don’t know how to lasso the truth out of you,” and “I wonder if it’s scary, always tryin’ not to get hurt.” It’s an assertion of being mortal, sensitive, desiring realistic love rather than some big budget movie perfection.
My friend Lelah and I saw Kacey play over the summer at the big arena while she was opening for Harry Styles and we laughed uncontrollably while taking a puff of a joint Lelah found in her purse in the stadium bathroom (something Kacey would definitely approve of—see: “Pageant Material:” “I’m always higher than my hair,” or “Follow Your Arrow:” “Roll up a joint, I would!”) and snuck down to yet-to-be filled seats so we could see her closer than the view from our nosebleeds. Kacey dedicated “Rainbow,” the last track on the album, to anyone going through a hard time and Lelah looked at me and said, “It’s for you!!” The song is about the aftermath of a storm and how hard it is to stop hanging onto your protective layers even long after the storm is over. “The sky is finally open, the rain and wind stopped blowin’,” Kacey sings like a lullaby, “But you’re stuck out in the same old storm again/You hold tight to your umbrella, darlin’ I’m just tryin’ to tell ya/That there’s always been a rainbow hangin’ over your head.” Do I just want songwriters to tell me that everything’s going to be OK? Just like when Jimmy Eat World tells me I’m in the middle of the ride and everything will be alright (alright), when Kacey Musgraves tells me, “It’ll all be alright” at the very end of the record, I continue to feel soothed.
(Photo Credit: Left, Sarah Cass)