Unpopular advent 2021 – day 24

Kacey Musgraves – ‘There Is A Light’ from Star-crossed

It may be terribly unfashionable these days to admit it, but in my younger years I would certainly have referred to some music as a ‘guilty pleasure’. In the middle of my fifth decade (or wait, is it the middle of my sixth decade? Numbers confuse me…) such a notion is a nonsensical one, but I can still sense my younger and immeasurably more foolish self casting a withering eye into 2021, seeing Kacey Musgrave’s ‘Star-crossed’ being touted as a favourite record of the year and asking, with that insufferable smrik, ‘really?’. To which I’m sighing ‘get over yourself’ and an emphatic ‘yes’. Yes, yes, yes, yes and a fifth time yes. Really.

Before I let myself get too carried away, however, let me assure that more youthful facsimile of my self that there remain very few, ah, ‘contemporary Pop’ acts who remotely appeal. Yet where once that may have been dictated by a certain elitist snobbery (and nothing wrong with that in its place, which is inevitably in the darkened corner of the dusty library with Colonel Mustard and his lead-piping (oo-er missus)) these days it’s rather more honestly a case of ‘tried that, didn’t do anything for me’. I have tried too. I mean, not especially hard or nothin’, because let’s face it there are only so many hours in the day and there are all those weirdo electronica and weird-folk transmissions to tune into. So many detective novels to read too, for that matter. But yes. Yes I tried listening to Taylor Swift. Yes I listened to a couple of Billie Eilish songs. Yes I sampled some bits of Lorde. And yes I… No, actually, that’s about it. None of it made any sense to me and that is probably as it should be. Perhaps I could offer an objective view on why none of it sounds interesting to me, but frankly life is too short and as I say, there is always another detective novel to read. Fair play to those folks similarly in their fifties who do find something of value over there. I harbour a suspicion that any interest may be tied up in some strange way with children, but that’s possibly hilariously simplistic and/or insulting. But anyway, look, I’ve spent three decades with teenagers and I am so done with all of that.

Kacey Musgraves though, eh? Do The Young People like Kacey Musgraves? I have no idea. I’d probably have no idea about her either, were it not for one of the always eagerly awaited Legends Of Country end of year picks. That would have been for 2018’s ‘Golden Hour’, perhaps the record where Musgraves’ Country roots really started to blend with a gorgeously sweet Pop aesthetic to great effect. Three years on and ‘Star-crossed’ puts a definitive polish to the ‘Golden Hour’ sheen to produce a record that gleams with a delicious surface atop the sometimes troubled and weary landscape that lingers beneath (‘Star-crossed’ being, if you did not already know, a movie-accompanied, magic mushroom/Shakespeare influenced, three-part high concept piece about a/the journey through marriage into divorce).

Tropes of love, betrayal, breakup and divorce are eternal and essential parts of the melodramatic world of Country music of course, and last year’s ‘Gaslighter’ by The Chicks, for example, played the card of indignant, righteous anger to perfection. Musgraves though neatly sidesteps away from those dramas, instead, like Frida Hyvönen on her ‘Dream of Independence’ set, using language that is often quite flatly descriptive and matter of fact, shrugging off the potential for gloom with a self-possessed confidence that charms as much as it challenges. It adds a strangely powerful core to the record, like a taught steel wire dipped in glitter.

So if the Chicks’ ‘Gaslighter’ unflinchingly confronted the perpetrator of betrayal with a gut curdling yawp of anger, Musgraves hardly gives the unseen Other the time of day. He is there in the background in the first ‘act’ of the album, but really only comes in for a kicking on ‘Breadwinner’. Even here it’s more a light finger flick to the ear in comparison to the fire and brimstone more typically served up in the Country canon. It leaves Musgraves scope to focus on herself, with a re-construction effort in the third ‘act’ that is by turns vulnerable (‘Easier Said’) and optimistically self-possessed (‘What Doesn’t Kill Me’), culminating in the euphoric ‘There Is A Light’. Starting off with a delicate finger picking guitar refrain, the song quickly settles into a soft groove from whose safety blanket it then soars to the stars on a magic carpet of trilling bossa flute and a liberal sprinkling of gold dust. Deliciously addictive.

Curiously though, ‘There Is A Light’ is not the euphoric conclusion to the record that one might expect, for their follows an intriguing cover of Violeta Parra’s timeless ‘Gracias a la Vida’. Beginning with the crackle of vinyl and Musgraves’ voice as an echo from the mists of history, the number then morphs through what feels like a compressed history of music production to conclude with Kacey as an wildly technologically warped entity from a sci-fi dystopian nightmare, before flipping back, just in the nick of time, to reveal her purity of form as a Spanish guitar softly flourishes to end it all. It’s like the entire concept of the album condensed into four and half minutes of madcap experimentation, and none the worse for that.

‘Star-crossed’ then is by some considerable distance the most popular of the Unpopular advent records of 2021. Its fifteen tracks will take up nearly fifty minutes of your time yet manage to make that feel like a butterfly blink of an eye. A treasure and a pleasure. No guilt involved.

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