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Music

Review: Kacey Musgraves is a radical optimist on the blissed-out ‘Golden Hour’

Kacey Musgraves At Spencer House For Spotify
Kacey Musgraves’ new album is “Golden Hour.”
(Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images for Spotify)
Pop Music Critic

The promise of new love meets the thrill of new sounds on “Golden Hour,” Kacey Musgraves’ knockout of a third studio album.

“Kiss full of color makes me wonder where you’ve always been,” the 29-year-old country star sings in “Butterflies,” before adding, “I was hiding in doubt till you brought me out of my chrysalis.”

The song layers folky guitar over a loping bass groove, but when Musgraves gets to that final word, her voice transforms into what could be a choir of robots — a nifty Space Age touch in a tune about life down here on Earth.

Moments as vivid as that one are typical of Musgraves, a deeply crafty singer and songwriter who broke out with her Grammy-winning 2013 debut, “Same Trailer Different Park,” and topped Billboard’s country chart with 2015’s “Pageant Material.”

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But where those proudly rootsy records cast a warm yet skeptical eye on family and tradition — an approach that led some to misunderstand Musgraves as an outlaw — here she’s consumed by fresh romance in songs that trick out acoustic arrangements with synths and vocoders and even the occasional disco groove.

“I used to get sad and lonely when the sun went down,” she sings in the title track, “But it’s different now ’cause I love the light that I’ve found in you.”

“Golden Hour” follows Musgraves’ marriage last year to Ruston Kelly, a fellow musician she said she met at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Cafe. And in track after track she describes their relationship with a kind of euphoria she hasn’t displayed before.

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In “Butterflies” her guy is the one who “untangled all the strings ’round my wings” and allowed her to reach cloud nine. The lushly harmonized “Happy & Sad” finds her “with tears in my eyes” because she’s “never been this far off the ground.”

Then there’s “Oh, What a World,” a gorgeous psychedelic-country jam in which Musgraves compares her husband to “plants that grow and open your mind” and “things that swim with a neon glow.”

Throughout the album, the singer and her co-producers, Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, surround Musgraves’ voice and guitar with dreamy textures that give the music a buoyant quality in keeping with all those references to getting high.

More than once the music recalls Fleetwood Mac’s “Tango in the Night,” still a benchmark for artists looking to capture an appealing lost-in-space sensation.

Yet Musgraves also knows how to temper the hippie-dippy stuff with more plainspoken moments, as in “Mother,” a disarming piano ballad about missing her mom.

“Hope my tears don’t freak you out,” she sings, narrating an emotional LSD trip, “They’re just kind of coming out.” Elsewhere, in the crisp and yearning “Lonely Weekend,” she’s bumming around while her man’s out of town: “I keep looking at my phone, putting it back down.”

But she’s OK about it, she decides, since “it’s all right to be alone sometimes.”

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In a funny way, the radical optimism of “Golden Hour” feels far more rebellious than any of Musgraves’ earlier work, which many fans took as a condemnation of small-town orthodoxy.

But that wasn’t quite right: More a libertarian than a true progressive, Musgraves has long preached a gospel of gritty if cheerful self-determination, one that spread quickly after her debut was met with near-universal acclaim.

Today, five years after “Same Trailer Different Park,” country music is full of young women — from Maren Morris to Ashley McBryde to Maddie & Tae (of the deathless “Girl in a Country Song”) — poking holes in all kinds of received wisdom.

Which is great, of course: No longer may bros in backward baseball caps roam the heartland unchallenged.

What that means, though, is that Musgraves would’ve been less likely to stand out with another record that allowed listeners to view her as a flinty apostate.

That she didn’t make that record — that instead she made one as blissed-out as “Golden Hour” — doesn’t just reflect the happy events of Musgraves’ life.

It suggests she’s even savvier than she first appeared.

mikael.wood@latimes.com

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Twitter: @mikaelwood


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