Kacey Musgraves is one of my favorite young talents to find success in recent years. I found her 2013 debut Same Trailer Different Park to be absolutely delightful when I reviewed it a couple years back, and I have been eagerly awaiting her inevitable follow-up ever since. Musgraves’ ambitions extend far beyond the Nashville country scene, and likewise so does her music. I was not receptive at all to the idea of even listening to, much less liking, country music until a few years ago when I finally gave artists like Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Musgraves a try. Of the three, Musgraves is my favorite — her music is essentially country-flavored rock music with strong pop sensibilities — and she has the most charismatic, relatable personality of any star from the country world to emerge in recent years. (Her crossover appeal is strong enough that Same Trailer Different Park has sold half a million copies in the US and counting.)
And now she is back with her sophomore effort, 2015‘s Pageant Material. The title reveals much of the album’s thematic direction: Musgraves delves more deeply into her roots and childhood here, but the title also doubles as a reference to her new life on constant display — Kacey tells a few tales about the consequences of stardom on the record, with the biting “Family Is Family” the most clear example. On the early cut (and second single) “Dime Store Cowgirl,” she addresses both themes, incorporating “You can take me out of the country / But you can’t take the country out of me” into the chorus. Throughout the new record, the music is lush and lovely, and while nothing on Pageant Material quite reaches the highs of the best songs (“Back on the Map,” “Silver Lining,” “Merry Go ‘Round”), there isn’t a hit-or-miss quality to the songs this time around either. Or, to paraphrase, Kacey has begun to grow up a bit; Pageant Material is a well-rounded, mature effort.
I also can’t help but notice the album has an ultra-relaxed, almost vacation-like feel; there are times (particularly on the closer “Fine”) when it sounds as if Kacey is a member of a band employed by a fancy Hawaiian hotel. And in many ways, this is a honeymoon or victory lap kind of record. After finally finding success as a result of her marriage to chief collaborators Shane McAnally and Luke Laird, Musgraves pauses to celebrate. And that’s what Pageant Material is in a nutshell: a laid back album that finds Musgraves not quite ready to move on from her first record. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of progress here — as I mentioned above, she has certainly grown as an artist; for example, about half the tracks are accompanied by a string section this time around — and besides, what’s wrong with enjoying the moment a little? She has the rest of her life to continue making records; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel right now.
Of course, to borrow from the lead single “Biscuits,” her life isn’t entirely gravy at this point — there are negatives to high-profile success, for sure, and she gets into some of the details on Pageant Material. But those are problems to be addressed when she comes back down to Earth a little. This is an album that reflects her state of mind on top of the world while touring it in support of her breakthrough debut, and as a result it captures her at a relaxed high (in more ways than one, since her lyrics indicate she smokes weed). Overall, Pageant Material does a bang-up job of giving fans “the same thing but different” — it’s a new flavor of what was already a good thing. And though the songs are weaker overall this time — a few tend to pass by without registering sometimes if you aren’t paying close attention since they’re so light — there are still some really good ones like “Late to the Party,” which is so lovely it makes me absolutely swoon every time. Highly recommended.