MusicWeekend

On the Margins of Country Music

We’re witnessing a transitional moment for the country music genre that opens up space for weirdness and experimentation.

Turn on a country radio station and you’ll notice that contemporary country is sounding more and more like the pop-rock of yesteryear: rocking riffs, booming drums, arena scale. I’m delighted, less because of any investment in arena-rock than because we’re witnessing a transitional moment for the genre that opens up space for weirdness and experimentation. When genre lines become tenuous, crossover flourishes, which is marvelous. The novelty of artists figuring out how to inhabit styles foreign to them often produces an infectious sense of delight in the moment. I can’t think of another reason why the Australian and Swedish country albums reviewed below feel so strange, so exhilarating, so original.

Kylie Minogue: Golden (BMG/Liberator)

On her best album in forever, the Australian pop idol and veteran electrodisco specialist pivots to country, recording in Nashville and hiring producers and cowriters established in the country-pop industry. Though she sounds pleasantly surprised by her own stylistic reincarnation, it’s not a genre exercise: the new musical elements augment and enrich her sweet, bouncy, familiar dancepop core.

The flash reinvention and the veteran star’s demonstration of pop mastery aren’t modes that often mix, however Minogue radiates the grace of a country-disco queen. Yet, she could no sooner make a country album than she could go EDM; a polymorphous pop heroine assimilates external influences into her own maelstrom, not vice versa, and these expertly crafted concoctions showcase, as always, her affectless yearning, her fascination with mechanical efficiency and formal intricacy, her commitment to finding cheer within ache.

The blend of ringing guitar arpeggios, plucked banjos, and electronic polish simulating the rosy amber of pedal steel, meshing with glistening keyboards and stop/start/rise/drop electrohouse dynamics, produces the current pop climate’s closest equivalent to soft rock. These are upbeat dance anthems, designed to play in public spaces, and shifted into a more sincerely intimate realm by the wholesomeness we associate with acoustic guitars and sepia shades. “Stop Me From Falling” melds banjo and keyboard into the same sparkly whoosh, while the guitar hook in “Raining Glitter” spins and plunks with the exactitude of a synth preset.

If there’s anything country about this music, it’s Minogue’s sense of an impending ending, and the need to look back at ephemeral things; these songs aren’t nostalgic for past parties so much as they are party songs that anticipate a future state of nostalgia, that recognize the present moment as a site for imminent memories to be enshrined. On “Sincerely Yours” and “Shelby 68,” she gets lost in the breathless moment while conveying enough reflexive awareness to show she’s never totally lost. She celebrates the imagined youth of pop songwriting as a never-ending condition, a natural ebullience you can’t lose because you can’t fully inhabit it either — for if Kylie Minogue can keep recording pop bangers in perpetuity, the world must surely be a beautiful place. Wistfulness doesn’t undercut the pop thrill — it’s an essential component of the album’s joy.

Over house keyboards and drum machines, squeaky looped sighs, and sun-speckled guitar rust, she announces her credo, relishing the double meaning: “When I go out I wanna go out dancing.”

Lori McKenna: The Tree (CN)

Lori McKenna is most renowned as a behind-the-scenes country songwriter, having penned gems for Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Little Big Town, but her own stripped-down folk delivery reveals the contours of her material. Simple in the extreme, this album ponders home and family with painstaking austerity.

McKenna prizes plainness and a blunt modesty. Her band inhabits a clear, warm sound that hinges on the intersection of guitar strumming and guitar plucking, jangly little riffs adorning a woodier base. She favors unobtrusively spare and midtempo arrangements, the better to highlight the details of her songwriting, especially the words. Her throaty, talky singing follows the melody with as much restraint as is possible while still carrying a tune, while her writing paints miniature pictures of domestic adult life, encompassing marriage, parenthood and the larger familial structure.

She’s at her best when her mild decorum coexists with a level of Nashville-sanctioned writerly craft that ensures musical delicacy and lyrical intricacy, as well as narrative twists. Metaphors gain double and triple meanings throughout a song, key details function as symbols, and some endings shock. Her grandly understated The Bird and the Rifle (2016) is a triumph of the singer-songwriter mode partially because her impulse as a writer is to resist shows of creative technique even within her tradition of realism, and the tension that arises whenever she attempts complexity hits the perfect country sweet spot between simple and polished.

The Tree tends toward the simpler side of things, as piously chiming guitars drag their feet. McKenna’s fixated on the stability of family as bedrock, and the best way to convey family stability is through forthright platitudes, so we learn that people get old, a mother never rests, you can’t be happy by taking someone else’s happiness away, and, most importantly, the apple never falls far from the tree. The great exception is “You Can’t Break a Woman” (“who don’t love you anymore”) — scalding in the way that the interlocking guitars bite and McKenna’s mournfully defiant voice meshes with the sad, triumphant melody.

In its bare bones, the folk approach both suits her perfectly and boxes her in. “I haven’t made my dance record yet,” she told the Boston Globe as a joke. I hope she does!

First Aid Kit: Ruins (Columbia)

Johanna and Klara Söderberg love country music as form — as a collectively designated cultural space for yearners to yearn according to established emotional structures. On their fourth album, reunited after an extended hiatus, the fanciful Swedish country-folk duo demonstrates what it means to love at a distance.

Like many genre specialists, their gift is for obsessive craft: beneath an immaculately glistening surface, they construct a bizarre ahistorical facsimile of studio country-rock that may even have existed but certainly didn’t sound like this. Performed so ingenuously, one is naturally ready to believe that country songs in the ’70s were just as spaciously textured and brightly chipper. While avoiding overtly electronic elements, these songs are beneficiaries of modern production technique; the thundering drums, chilly ostinato violin and thick layers of hollow strummed guitar all merge synthetically, yet with an eerie, windswept quality.

Both sisters sing together, usually in unison but sometimes trading lead and backup roles, or timing their entwined harmonies so that one pellucid singer’s utterances seem woven into the other’s, echoing through the aural space — as when their voices merge over the swirling organ in “It’s a Shame,” or when their chirpy, ping-ponging exclamations set up the dizzy guitar spiral in “Distant Star,” descending and climbing upward again.

In the past, their pursuit of surface has led them to settle for a pat cutesiness. This time the illusion holds — the cornfed limpidity of their voices, the conflation of pedal steel and keyboard gleam, the twangy squeak of the rhythm guitar, all produce not warmth or homespun comfort but rather shimmering artificiality. They’re writing songs that refract and recombine decades of country convention, and their choruses often sound oddly familiar, as if you’ve heard this ballad or that guitar lick before. The opening “Rebel Heart,” a miserable stomper, gallops steadily, as the pealing guitars and mournful horns chase the song down, while the pittering piano in “Postcard” could occupy a drawing room.

Cumulatively, the album treats the country genre as a means for transcendence. It resonates as an act of imagination, conveying the desire to be swept off one’s feet by a fantasy. It constructs the kind of blandness that is uplifting in itself.

Kacey Musgraves: Golden Hour (MCA Nashville)

Kacey Musgraves has always been fascinated by blandness — as a social force, a source of conventional ideas and ways of going about things, but also as an aesthetic, a pose to inhabit, toward some end or for its own sake. After two sly country-pop albums and a heartwarmingly cute Christmas collection, she goes full soft-rock, inventing her own strain of coffeehouse pop designed for unobtrusive delicacy.

Acclaimed for her fusion of country music and progressive content, which is only a contradiction if one condescends to country as a genre, Musgraves’s true subject is convention itself. She speaks in velvety clichés and ties each song off with a little bow. What distinguishes her is an awareness of how propriety can take musical and rhetorical forms. Her exemplary Pageant Material (2015) sketched a formal paradox, as a collection of “advice” songs that advised against the assumptions that underlie the very concept of the advice song, an examination and embrace of the American colloquial homily.

As a celebration of contentment and first love’s glow (her “golden hour”), this album is less perverse and more spare, sweeping, dazed, almost hypnotic. Musically, it’s a departure, replacing the plucky little riffs of her previous lightweight, countrypolitan blend with disco strings, tastefully subdued electronic touches, pitch-corrected vocals with the smoothness of vanilla-tinged rice pudding. That this approach strips her songs of tension is the point, as the album aims to define a new mode of soft rock, easy listening for a commercial climate where no such mode currently exists.

It’s only the fulfillment of her sound if you believe she was always destined to escape the taint of country genre convention. I prefer the dialectic itchiness of her rosy kitsch mode. Often the album’s dreamy ambience dilutes a songwriting conceit she could have twisted; “High Horse” and “Space Cowboy,” a “Desperado” rewrite, are punchlines reverse-engineered into songs. She shines only at her lushest: “Oh, What a World” aches as it layers on the vocoder, and “Lonely Weekend,” an amalgamation of multiple jangly, glossy, silky guitar sounds, soars gorgeously, especially when the glazed keyboard noodling lifts the song at the end.

Bland rather than about blandness, the album nonetheless charms in its feel-good calm and its textural array. It’s mood music, suitable for immersion.

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