Golden Hour: A communal album for a solitary time

It’s the first bit of nice weather we’ve had in Southern Ontario since about October, which in normal times is a reason to rejoice. But, as we all know, we are in Not Normal times and as such the beautiful weather felt less like a reprieve than a taunt (two coronavirus articles in four days, an absolute treat). And since we are a species primarily focused on extincting ourselves in the quest for immediate pleasure, we puffed out our chests and told Mother Nature that it was on. This isn’t just a Southern Ontario thing, obviously. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures from all over North America of people packed into pools or restaurants or parks, all brash and cocky and sure that a mindless virus that has killed nearly 7,000 people in Canada and over 100,000 people in the United States wouldn’t affect them, or their families, or the people they work or live or commute with.

Look, I get it. I haven’t been perfect either — I went on a bike ride with friends this weekend (unsure if this is allowed, due to Ontario’s incredibly convoluted guidelines on social distancing), and then visited with four people, distanced, in a backyard (probably not allowed). I felt guilty about it after, especially since it looked like cases in Ontario were ticking up after the long weekend. On one hand, I had failed an incredibly simple task — avoiding contact with people outside my household, regardless of whether or not that was outside or inside, distanced or not. I should do better. On the other hand, Premier Doug Ford has decided that golf courses can open in the midst of the pandemic, and that nannies, housekeepers, and cooks can go back into the homes of others while he repeatedly breaks his own mandates. These decisions disproportionately benefit the richest amongst us while disproportionately harming the poor — people are being forced back to work in dangerous conditions so that those who are already most insulated against this crisis can be more comfortable. To me, if you’re living a life where having a cook is a reality, you should be able to continue paying them even if they don’t come during a pandemic to cook your pancakes. If you can’t, you’re just the living embodiment of this dril tweet. But as we all know, compassion makes bad capitalism. None of this is an excuse, but forgive me if I’m a bit disillusioned with it all.

The photos I showed above, though, illustrate much more recklessness than going for a bike ride. A lot of the reasoning behind this behaviour can be chalked up to ignorance, and even more to a general lack of empathy (especially coupled with reports of people urinating on buildings in Toronto). But still, at least a small part of me is understanding. We’re a communal species, one who has thrived because of our innate ability to form social groups — early on in our existence these groups gave us increased safety, as well as the opportunity to share goods and expertise, increasing our overall chances at survival. They do much of the same things now, although the stakes are a bit lower, and are also proven to improve mental health and general wellbeing. So as the coronavirus pandemic has removed much of our ability to socialize, people have gone a bit stir-crazy. Even I, someone who is very far to the ‘introvert’ end of the introvert-extrovert spectrum, who likes to play video games and read and plays euchre virtually with friends, someone who is living with a supportive and present partner, is finding the isolation difficult. I didn’t realize how much I would miss going out to eat, or going to a concert, or just seeing 8–10 of my friends in someone’s basement.

I’m glossing over the myriad other reasons for stress and worry during the pandemic; maybe you lost your job, or have children at home, maybe you can’t find the mental health support you need, maybe you don’t qualify for the means-tested support that the Canadian government is doling out. The situation for many people is far worse than it is for me, I just didn’t realize that it would affect me in the way that it is. But even casting aside these other major issues, acute loneliness is affecting myself and also our society in ways that we weren’t prepared for.

Now, I write mostly about music, and it’s time that we get to the music. But this lead-in wasn’t purposeless — music has long been what people turn to in order to ignite, or complement, or soothe their emotions. There’s music for every feeling that a person can have, and the same music can even have different effects depending on your mindset, your experiences, even just when or where you first heard it. Music is inherently tied to emotion, whether they’re those of the listener or those of the creator. Loneliness, in particular, is an emotion that has inspired an abundance of music, and as such you can easily find music that sharpens your own loneliness, commiserates with you. That isn’t what I need right now; I have no desire for exacerbation of the thing I’m currently feeling. What I need now is music of community and togetherness, qualities that I feel are much harder to find, especially in contemporary Western music (I’d be happy to be proven wrong). And I’m not necessarily talking about love songs, although they form a component of a larger whole of communal music. It’s not even necessarily music of a singular theme or genre as it is music of a singular feeling, a feeling of warmth and closeness and joy that’s hard to describe (although Afrobeat, especially Nigerian wunderkind Fela Kuti, may be the genre that is most representative of communal music, with its interlocking rhythms and heavy emphasis on call and response structures). The music I’m speaking of can make you feel as if you’re with friends and family, make you feel less alone. And the album that I’ve been turning to again and again for this feeling of togetherness is Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.

Cover art for Golden Hour

My infatuation with this album didn’t start with the pandemic. Golden Hour was released in spring of 2018, a time when all of the newness outside was contrasted sharply to some professional (and by extension, personal — so it goes) stagnation. I was coming up on two years in a job I cared little for, in an industry whose values I felt were counter to the ones I wanted to hold personally. It’s not that I hated the job, there were fun times and good people, but nothing really departed me from the mean (I draw attention to this wordplay, as I’m proud) feeling of general malaise. Golden Hour offered me a reprieve from that, even if I was still physically at my workplace. It’s an album full of warmth and comfort, and maybe this is just because of the album’s title, but it’s able to transport me to a world similar to ours only a bit more flaxen, both vibrant and soft — a world in a perpetual golden hour, if you will.

Musically, Golden Hour scans as country at the most base level, but draws inspiration from pop and psychedelia and even disco. Musgraves doesn’t really work off of country music tropes unless she needs to subvert them, preferring to use country music signifiers, banjos and vocal twang and horses (among others), as a springboard to explore deeper concepts and varied musical styles. Lyrically, Musgraves is soul-searching and funny and sounds like she’s dizzily happy, even if she’s singing a song that’s supposed to be sad. On opener ‘Slow Burn’ Musgraves strings together a series of non-sequiturs (‘Texas is hot/I can be cold/Grandma cried when I pierced my nose’) to form a song about slowing down to appreciate every moment. The song is spare at first, with just a few strummed acoustic guitars, making it an excellent showcase of Musgraves’ clear and powerful voice. As the song builds, we get some added piano plinks, drums coming in about halfway through the song, and even a violin, so that by the end Musgraves is singing in front of a full backing band. ‘Slow Burn’ is a great example of the slow build and uses concrete imagery and little vignettes to great effect — it’s a wonderful introduction to the world of Golden Hour.

If I could, I would write hundreds of words about each song here, all so fully realized and familiar to me. ‘Lonely Weekend’ is all about how sometimes it’s okay to want to be alone, a melancholy feeling wrapped up in a sprightly melody. That melancholy feeling is captured perfectly again on standout ‘Happy & Sad:’ ‘Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight/Happy and sad at the same time?’ asks Musgraves through some gorgeous multi-tracked vocals. She knows that sadness can strike even when things are going perfectly. Elsewhere on the album, Musgraves adeptly and beautifully expresses affection: to her husband on ‘Butterflies,’ to her mom on the piano-led micro-song ‘Mother,’ to the all-encompassing feeling of being in love on ‘Love is A Wild Thing.’ But the best showcase of affection on the album doesn’t come until the penultimate song on the album, the title track. ‘Golden Hour’ is a gently lilting song that talks frankly about the ability of one person to give your life stability, to turn even the most negative experiences into something bearable. Everything being sung here is genuine and affecting, Musgraves is honest and soul-baring without being raw or uncomfortable (not that uncomfortable can’t work for some music). She can be goofy too, like on the twangy ‘Velvet Elvis,’ which I’m pretty sure is literally about having an Elvis statue in your house, and the country-disco romp of a lead single, ‘High Horse,’ about the incredibly relatable experience of meeting someone who thinks they’re just so much better than you. Musgraves’ kiss-offs on ‘High Horse’ are buoyed by a funky bass line and stabbing guitar until everything gets shimmery and twinkly on the chorus. It’s a wildly fun song, funny and danceable and real.

Even the one truly sad song on the album is a brilliant achievement, perhaps the best song on the disc. ‘Space Cowboy’ is a crushing ballad about the dissolution of a relationship, not the psychedelic trip you may have expected from the title. I talked above about Musgraves flipping country tropes, and that ability is on full display here, whether she’s name-dropping truck brands for maximum relatability, or using horse metaphors to instill feelings of distance, or paraphrasing spaghetti western clichés as a shorthand for loss. ‘Space Cowboy’ is a marvellous song, showing Musgraves’ imperial command of her songwriting and her talent for arrangement.

Golden Hour finishes with ‘Rainbow,’ an empowerment ballad for everyone and anyone. But rather than being hackneyed, ‘Rainbow’ feels universal, with Musgraves’ voice rising above stately piano, telling us to slow down and appreciate what’s around us while we still can, essentially a thematic reprise of the album’s first song. Returning to the idea of communal music I discussed at the top, a Big Idea of Golden Hour is distilled in ‘Rainbow:’ we’re in this together, and when something doesn’t go your way that just serves to tighten the bond between us. Golden Hour is an album focused on personal experiences, but presented in such a way that these experiences aren’t just Kacey’s but mine, and yours, and everyone else’s. In a time where we’re isolated from each other, where sharing experiences and happiness has become exceedingly rare, Golden Hour revels in common events, no matter how minute, and reminds us that we’re not alone.

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