The critical reception to Golden Hour, the third major-label, non-holiday album from Kacey Musgraves, reminds me of a particle accelerator - an atom smasher they used to call them - where we learn about something invisible by observing where the sparks fly after a collision. The quantum system at issue involves a unique artistic vision colliding with the ways music writers tend to frame the music business.
Nearly everyone is raving about the record. The notoriously persnickety Pitchfork gave it 8.7 out of 10. SPIN said it “might be a classic.” And they’re right. Golden Hour is the first great country/Americana album of 2018, a keeper that may well, with the fullness of time, earn the early comparisons to Rumors and Harvest. Yet as the critical community eyeballs the work through various lenses - Music Row’s legacy of stylistic shackles, Tomato-gate, gender politics, Kacey’s new marriage and even her out-of-the-closet love of cannabis and psychedelics - writers may be overlooking the most important reasons we’re being seduced by Golden Hour and why I think millions more will be seduced in years to come.
I say this because no more than a handful of reviewers so much as mention the album’s co-producers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, let alone investigate the experience and esthetic they brought to the sessions. By no means am I implying that Musgraves can thank a couple of guys for making her record sound so good. She’s the boss and the visionary. She made the call to collaborate in this particular three-person team. What a consequential choice it was. And how remarkable that MCA Records/Universal didn’t push back at all (so I’m told), given Nashville’s history of explosive battles over producers who are not pre-certified members of the Music Row hit club. If you love Golden Hour, that partly begins here.
Ian Fitchuk does have some major label experience as a studio musician, chiefly as a respected drummer and keyboard player. As a producer he’s worked with moody, indie musicians such as Griffin House and Mindy Smith. His impressive resume ranges across Nashville’s music scene, in all its diverse glory. He’s also a wide-ranging, collaborative songwriter.
Fitchuck pulled in Daniel Tashian to write with Kacey Musgraves, which led to conversations, compositions and then to the studio. Tashian is a Music City treasure with a fascinating background. His parents are folk/country couple Barry and Holly Tashian. Dad’s band Barry & The Remains opened for the Beatles in 1966. Daniel’s own 1996 recording debut was produced by T Bone Burnett. And his coolest vehicle of many is his inexplicably obscure mood-pop band The Silver Seas. Listen to their records (seriously) and then listen to Golden Hour and feel the common vibes and colors.
Motivating Musgraves, Tashian told me, was a desire to pivot away from her reputation for clever conceits toward a more impressionistic aura. He made a fascinating observation, that less story, less narrative, leads to fewer words and thus more space to sing long notes. He’s loved the pure tones and control of Musgraves’s voice for a long time, and he relished the chance to help capture those qualities. I have an innate trust of anyone who thinks in terms of “ethos” and that’s what Tashian said carried them into Sheryl Crow’s Big Green Barn Studio. Basic recording and super-wam, vintage recording gear closed the deal.
'Golden Hour' is a familiar phrase to photographers because of the gentle and forgiving way sunlight feels, fleetingly, at dawn and dusk. And that liminal state is expressed here in sound. While the songs are moving and well crafted, as others have ably documented, the record achieves its magic and longevity with exceptionally sensitive use of tone and timbre, a consummate musicality. The instrumental bed is gauzy and horizontal, like an atmosphere clinging precariously to a planet. Musgraves’s voice is edged and vertical, suggesting mountains and skyscrapers lifting skyward, catching the light and the wind. The contrast - that carefully considered esthetic - carries through from start to finish with a consistency as fulfilling as it is rare.
Reviews are supposed to come out during release week, and that’s okay. But an album that begins with the chill tempo and relaxed message of “Slow Burn” is its own warning against hot takes on sophisticated music. We try too hard sometimes to peg artists to movements and burden them with the zeitgeist. Musgraves shows us here she’s a wild swan, a sub-sub-genre of one. Golden Hour is blissfully oblivious to the conversations around it and to the flood of related releases in country and Americana. It gets better with time and repeated play. Not because it’s “important,” but because it’s beautiful.