Pageant Material Album Review
Released June 23, 2015
Country music’s legacy, in today’s music, is plagued by horrific and insulting tropes: EDM structural dynamics, rehashed topics, weak songwriting, “rapping”, and spring break-centric albums. These are the traits that have driven me away from country music as a genre not simply because I hate them, but because they are just inherently horrible to begin with. They’re overdone, sloppy, and honestly, uninteresting to begin with. It doesn’t help that almost every single artist on country radio sounds exactly the same. Which is why artists like Kacey Musgraves are keeping country music’s legacy clean and pure. Riding high from her refreshing major label debut Same Trailer Different Park, Musgraves gives country music what Kendrick has given hip-hop: a new voice, devoid of cliches and distinctly honest and of her own. Musgraves’ strengths lie in her songwriting, where her poignant lyricism unfurls with each listen and are, to its core, personal tales of self-acceptance and going against the flow. With this backing her up, Pageant Material is, if I do say so myself, one of the best releases of 2015.
Musgraves first came into public light with “Follow Your Arrow”; a country song on the outside but with liberal lyrics woven into the stellar track supporting the LGBT and pothead community as opposed to the conservative values that country music has been known to preach. Amidst the criticism from country fans, other took notice to Musgraves’ uncanny and talented songwriting. Pageant Material continues where Musgraves left off on Same Trailer Different Park but adds stonger, more witty lyrics, the occasional string section, and songs focused on content rather than the weak hook or attempt for a radio hit. These songs are better enjoyed when listen closely, carefully, and with an open mind.
The album opens with “High Time” which, from the opening seconds, sounds like a sigh of relief, ushering the new change of pace in country music. The song is solely held together with Musgraves crystalline country croon, a guitar, and the occasional slide guitar. Musgraves openly rejects the modern mandates of country music and holds the hallmarks of 70s and 80s country music in high regard. Musgraves weaves personal stories in the track “Dime Store Cowgirl” where Musgraves sings “you can take me out of the country/ but you can’t take the country out of me” which, in hindsight, sounds cliched but Musgraves ultimately makes it her own. The title track’s double-entendre lyric of “the only Crown is in my glass” which is a brutally honest dagger of a phrase if you ask me, not to mention a cleverly constructed one offers a peephole into the personality of a masterful storyteller.
Perhaps the song with the strongest hook, and catchiest melody, “Biscuits” celebrates and praises authenticity and self-acceptance which is best exhibited by the finger-wagging bridge: “pouring salt in my sugar won’t make yours any sweeter/ and pissing in my yard won’t make yours any greener”. “Late To The Party” is a pensive track that feels like a meditation on Musgraves’ reputation before its chorus opens up Musgraves’ inner thoughts “Who needs a crowd / When you’re happy at a party for two,” which, again, brings out her own personal convictions. “Good Ol’ Boys Club” is another finger-pointing-diss that subtweets the “Big Machine” and mentions “cigars” (sound familiar?) while the title track features an interesting dichotomy that is influential to the thematic core of the album.
The former Nashville Star has accepted that she doesn’t mesh with the glitzy eponymous contests but she also struggles to escape that generalization entirely. “Cup Of Tea” preaches the importance of individuality while the hazy “Somebody To Love” finds Musgraves positioning herself amongst the rest of the world, carefully relating her personal struggles with struggles that we all share, or can at least relate to. Around the one-minute mark, Musgraves belts out in a straining yet beautiful cry for help as she brings one of the most transparent and sentimental moments of the album to full clarity. With multiple moments of sentimental confession, witty and cleverly constructed wordplay, and biting yet convincing lyrics, Pageant Material is a flawless execution is songwriting.
Instrumentally, this album is country to its very core. Expecting any change-ups to the sound (a la Sturgill Simpson. Another good country artist you should check out), is a misconstrued expectation but that just accentuates the pure and iconic sound that Musgraves was aiming for. The final track “Fine” is a brilliant take on masking a heartbreak for public consumption which takes a convincing, and aptly heartbreaking, turn of a events. At nearly eight-minute in length, this is Musgraves’ shining moment (albeit the maudlin triple hit of “Somebody to Love”, “Miserable”, and “Die Fun” are a fine center point too); the track holds a hidden track which features country great Willie Nelson asking “Are you sure / That this is where / You want to be?” in his stoic and gruff tenor. Much like her reluctant acceptance of “It Is What It Is.” Musgraves assures that bouncing back from heartache isn’t easy, but eventually it will come.
Pageant Material is best described as a musical self-portrait. Much like herself, Musgraves rejects the norms of Southern culture and cliche Country music tropes to craft something that is from the heart and flawlessly held high on music that beckons back to the days of Que Sera Sera; and bare but uplifting melodies, with the simplest of instrumentation. Musgraves proves to be one of the best songwriters of her time with her cleverly constructed and poignantly rendered phrases on everyday life. Yes, there’s less to latch onto musically this time around but every artist in their lifetime should have an album that is all substance over style, and is best enjoyed with repeated listens. For a country album, Pageant Material can stand strongly on its own with Musgraves’ masterful story telling power steering this album to well-deserved praise. Non-country fans look to Musgraves as an exception to the genre -which is fine- but its Musgraves’ ability to break expectations of herself that proves to be the most remarkable trait here.
PRETTY NEAT MUSIC
FAV TRACKS: High Time, Dime Store Cowgirl, Late To The Party, Pageant Material, Biscuits, Somebody To Love, Good Ol’ Boys Club, Cup Of Tea, Fine, Are You Sure (Hidden Track)
LEAST FAV TRACK: N/A