“I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t.” – Kacey Musgraves, ‘Pageant Material’.
The sophomore album, particularly of an artist as celebrated so early in her career as Musgraves was, is an incredibly poignant moment. It’s the sink-or-swim, fight-or-flight, true test of an artist’s capabilities and their musical intentions. Whereas their debut album is the result of many years of inspiration and honing their craft, all the while with no expectations of fame, wealth or success, a sophomore album finds them writing an album to a (usually) two year deadline just as they attempt to deal with a speedy rise to the top. Do they want to chase radio and hits? Do they want to make the obscure music they love and risk alienating some fans? Will they buckle under the pressure altogether? So many questions, so many fears. None of which really entered my mind as I awaited ‘Pageant Material’. It didn’t seem relevant, somehow, the idea that Kacey would disappoint. And she didn’t.
Set to a backdrop of lush, orchestral arrangements reminiscent of the Nashville Sound with a side of sharp, modern Americana, ‘Pageant Material’ becomes immersive almost immediately. Kacey’s hold on the listener begins from the very first burst of opener ‘High Time’, a split-second of drawn breath audible before the sheer pitch and power of the chorus (which comes before the first verse) hits the speakers with a fresh confidence and force. Despite being a song about taking a step back, relaxing and rolling one up, it’s a strong statement of intent that fills the senses and demands attention; attention to its role as the first of thirteen songs that convey exactly who Kacey Musgraves is in 2015, and more importantly her own knowledge of it. It would perhaps be remiss to call this a coming of age record, particularly given the fact that Musgraves is now 26 years old and has already delivered some outstanding material at a level most of her peers will never reach, but it certainly feels like she is growing into herself.
Nowhere is this more evident than on ‘Dime Store Cowgirl’, a personal anthem of sorts along the lines of Faith Hill’s ‘Mississippi Girl’, but far more cleverly written. “I’ve had my picture made with Willie Nelson,” she announces proudly in her charming conversational tone, following the hard thud of a drum against an infectious and joyful guitar riff. “I made it all the way past Austin City Limits, and maybe for a minute I got too big for my britches, but I’m just a dimestore cowgirl, that’s all I’m ever gonna be,” she sings, with all the down to Earth honesty that is afforded to her. While others might muse on the bright lights and career achievements that find them on top of the world, Kacey has a different perspective involving places she’s been able to visit (Mt Rushmount, New Mexico, white cliffs of Dover), and smaller, more trivial things (staying in a hotel with a pool, drinking wine she can’t afford). Throughout, however, it feels less like a boastful string of accomplishments and more like an ordinary human being trying to process the way her life has changed. She stops to reassure us, “I kinda fell in love with a Palm Springs trailer park, but those California stars could never steal my heart.”
Where some artists might bear scepticism at such a claim, we believe it from Kacey. She goes one further on the title track with her trademark humor wrapped up in a real message on life and finding your own identity. “I try to use my common sense, but my foot always ends up in my mouth,” she admits. “My mama cried when she realized I ain’t pageant material, I’m always higher than my hair, and it ain’t that I don’t care about world peace, but I don’t see how I can fix in a swimsuit on a stage.” Referencing the popularity of beauty pageants in the south and the expectations placed on women in such areas to be classy and graceful, Kacey uses this not as an opportunity to criticize the practise but rather make the point that it’s not for her. Still, that doesn’t stop her from including a sly nod to the “resting bitch face” controversy and the perceived feud with Miranda Lambert without a single snarky utterance, “God bless the girls who smile and hug when they’re called out as a runner-up on TV, I wish I could, but I just can’t wear a smile when a smile ain’t what I’m feeling.” She also takes down her detractors with one swift, smart move and makes a larger point about how women are judged in the media, “Who’s to say I’m a 9.5 or a 4.0 if you don’t even know me? Life ain’t always roses in pantyhose.” Once again, she keeps things light-hearted while reminding us that we are all allowed to be ourselves and shouldn’t have to conform to other people’s ideas of what we should be.
She also takes on such a sentiment on the beautiful little ditty ‘Cup of Tea’ and of course lead single ‘Biscuits’, in each respect managing to take things from a slightly different angle and including more of the quote-worthy, poetic lines she is known for. But Musgraves has more to say than just “be yourself”, and it’s here where the album really begins to fill out into a balanced, well-rounded piece of art. On the gorgeous ballad ‘Late To The Party’ she gives us an endearing love song about preferring a “party for two” rather than the industry networking parties that she must attend. Once again it is not framed as a diss, but rather as a frank acknowledgment that sometimes you just want to stay at home with your significant other, a sentiment filled with all of her quirky romanticism. Closer ‘Fine’ meanwhile laments the difficulties of a long distance relationship, missing her loved one terribly and describing the various activities completed to deal with the loneliness, all the while swearing to everyone that she’s fine. Understated but powerful, Kacey reminds us that her sad songs are just as cutting as her ‘message’ songs are witty.
‘Family Is Family’ is one such example, and is possibly the most dryly humorous track on the album. “Family is family in church or in prison, you get what you get and you don’t get to pick ‘em,” she sings jovially on the chorus, dropping in killer lines like “they own too much wicker and drink too much liquor,” “they’re there when you’re married, divorced and re-married, you fall out of touch but then someone gets buried,” “you might talk about ‘em but if someone else does well you’ll knock ‘em out,” and “they show up at Christmas, get up in your business.” While others may sing sweetly and dutifully about the importance of family, Kacey is able to jump straight into the heart of people’s quirks and gripes and summarize a far more realistic set of relationships. ‘Somebody To Love’ continues this path as a reminder of our communal similarities, insecurities, warts and all, while ‘Miserable’ bravely points out somebody’s tendency to thrive while miserable and inability to let themselves be happy.
She’s also down for another knowing observation on small town life for ‘This Town’, a song which begins with a recorded conversation; a woman describes a drugged up girl who was brought into the hospital only to start biting one of the nurses, before the music kicks in to remind us that “this town’s too small to be mean, too small to be lying, way too small to cheat, way too small for secrets cause they’re way too hard to keep”. Although clearly about the kind of small town Miss Musgraves is from due to its descriptions of physical aspects of the setting, there is reason to believe that the refrain could also be applied to Nashville. Gossip travels far.
However, her most blatant reference to Music Row is on ‘Good Ol’ Boys Club’, a foot-tapping number that criticizes the patriarchal system and inner circle of middle-aged white men constructed by a web of favors. “Another gear in a big machine don’t sound like fun to me,” has been tenuously linked to record label Big Machine and its most famous artist Taylor Swift (whom Kacey has been bizarrely compared to on a number of occasions), but I think if you look for sly references you will find them. In reality, this is Kacey’s way of reminding us that she doesn’t care for the way the music industry only benefits those who are compliant with the rules, an exclusive club just out to make money, and that “if I end up going down in flames, well at least I know I did it my own way.” In recent light of SaladGate and the controversies of how country radio programs females and ‘different’ material altogether, it could also be a dig at them. “When did it become about who you know and not about how good you are?” She asks, and we are given pause to really think about the question. No-one has the answer.
This album is comprised of many strands; thoughts, emotions, ideas that are enacted both sonically and lyrically, and delivered with an expression and personality that is purely Kacey. In the weeks I have been listening to ‘Pageant Material’ I have been curious of the way it lived with me, not providing background to monotonous activities but offering respite from them. While other albums may be happy to tag along, ‘Pageant Material’ walks in tandem with you, easily taking over what you’re doing until all you are doing is listening to it. It is at once a mission statement, a landmark recording, and yet also a friend. What Kacey Musgraves has achieved on this record is thirteen incredibly strong tracks that make an even stronger, cohesive whole.
I’ve been trying to figure out if ‘Pageant Material’ is better than ‘Same Trailer Different Park’, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the question misses the point; they are simply different records. Different reflections of a woman who is growing up, changing and evolving, as people do. Different reflections of us. Everything that happens on this album involves us, coaxes us in, talks with us, laughs with us, cries with us. This is a personal album and yet an incredibly open, public one, and it’s one of the most brilliant records I have ever heard.
What’s a sophomore slump?