Kacey Musgraves Finds an Alluring Wellspring of Finger-Picking and Hard-Fought Bliss in ‘Deeper Well’: Album Review

The Grammy-winning “Golden Hour” was Kacey Musgraves’ honeymoon album, flush with love and promise in 2018. Its more dramatic followup, 2021’s “Star-Crossed,” turned out to be her divorce album, for most intents and purposes. So what’s a singer-songwriter do for an encore, after having pretty effectively covered the twin poles of serenity and severance? The answer, as heard on “Deeper Well,” maybe not altogether surprisingly, is to learn to love again (moderately gunshy version). It’s telling that she ends the record with a song titled “Nothing to Be Scared Of,” and sweetly sings it like she really believes it, even though she’s the one who’s been introducing more than trace amounts of anxiety into the preceding 12 tracks. The new album almost counts as a return to a “Golden Hour”-style exercise in melodious tranquility. But the songs stay interesting as well as pretty, with their implicit sense that the blues might still be found, hovering around the edges of bliss.

It’s safe to assume that Musgraves didn’t really mean to instigate a trilogy, exactly, when she started up work on “Golden Hour” with co-producers and co-writers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, trusted souls who remain her glued-at-the-hip collaborators for a third time here. Speaking of going back to a well, the new album is a deep distillation of the musical ideas the trio had already been going for with their last two records. This one is maybe marked even more by what’s being filtered out of the mix than what’s being added to it. The previous albums each had a token dance-tempo track added for variety (“High Horse” and “Breadwinner”), but “Deeper Well” forgoes throwing in any disco outliers as spice. Nearly every one of the 16 tracks begins with delicate finger-picking, and then stays there, flying proudly in the face of “there needs to be a banger” convention and staying committed to the acoustic bit. It’s uncompromising in that way, and all the lovelier for its confidence that you’ll turn up the volume, so she doesn’t have to.

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By the end of the record, Musgraves seems to have overcome her trust issues, but the domestic melodrama that marked key parts of her “Star Crossed” album is not without some residue here. “Moving Out” and “Giver Taker” are the two tracks that sound like the last of her splitsville songs, for now, squeezed in as poignant reminders of what could go wrong again. (The latter song uses a play on words — “I would take everything you had” — to capitalize on our implicit understanding that it might be a divorce being referenced, even though the double-meaning has it being used as a declaration of love.) These leftover feelings have their impact further felt in what might be the album’s best song, “Too Good to Be True,” in which Musgraves tenderly murmurs that she’s bringing some old hesitations into a newer romance, singing, “Please don’t make me regret opening up that part of myself again.” If you were inclined to coin a Musgraves-esque phrase, you could say she’s on a wary-go-round.

But at its extended heart, this is almost as contented an album as the one that won over the world’s hearts six years ago. Among the most happily lovestruck numbers, “Jade Green” describes the color of a bracelet that a lover has given her, that she’s treating like a rosary; fondling it, she recites “a little prayer to drive out the dark.” And she’s feeling like love has made her die and go to the hereafter in “Heaven Is,” a carefully paced 6/8 ballad in which Musgraves has decided that even if “nobody knows where we go when she die,” she’s experiencing some romantic Valhalla right now, so what the hell. (This track includes some audible tape hiss throughout, maybe signaling to listeners that the moment felt too authentic for her to bother re-tracking it.) The strumming remains gentle but gets going at a far faster clip in “Anime Eyes,” which, we are relieved to report, is every bit as cute as its title. Her googly-eyed infatuation is described in literally cartoonish terms, as through huge peepers; the song’s rapid-fire spoken interlude has her flying even higher into “a Miyazaki sky.”

Delivering the romantic lyrics of “Anime Eyes” in the terms of an acid trip, Musgraves sounds just a little like she might be on drugs. But the title track of “Deeper Well” means to set us straight, so to speak, on where she stands on altered states nowadays. “I used to wake and bake / Roll out of bed, hit the gravity bong that I made and start the day,” Musgraves sings. “For a while it got me by / Everything I did seemed better when I was high / I don’t know why.” This verse nearly counts as a breaking news alert, for country-pop’s once-proudest superstar stoner. But as it turns out, one of the things that following one’s arrow can lead to is the desire for utter clarity.

Given that Musgraves spends a good portion of “Deeper Well” writing about giving in to love again, it’s good that she also has songs like this title number that suggest that growth comes through introspection and reconsideration, not just re-partnering. A few numbers try to at least hint at the cosmic-ness of it all, too, starting with the opening “Cardinal,” which puts stock in the superstition of a bird’s repeated appearance being a sign from a departed loved one. (John Prine, in her mind, reportedly, is the heavenly visitor she was hoping to sense in this instance.) “The Architect,” the album’s one writing collaboration with seminal partners Shane McAnally and Josh Osbourne, finds her questioning God about the problem of evil and the beautiful puzzle of everyday miracles, like even an unexpected new romance.

“Dinner With Friends” is a “list” song — a modern-day country trope — but what a list, as Musgraves runs down everything she’d miss if she were looking at her life from the other side of death’s veil. The song is beautifully earthy and spooky, but in making these itemizations, she also shows a quick flash of the sharp humor that characterized her earliest albums. Among the things that will haunt her in the afterlife, she declares, are “my home state of Texas — the sky there and the horses and dogs, but none of their laws.”

It’s possible that some listeners will lament that “Deeper Well” finds a musical mode and stays with it, but for many, maybe most of us, her sticking with a kind of quietude will be a feature, not a flaw. And the stylistic variations between songs reveal themselves more on repeat listens — like, for instance, how “Heart of the Woods” has an almost tropical rhythm, as if the woods she was describing were on a Pacific island. (When Musgraves sings lines like “It’s in our nature to look out for each other in the heart of the woods / When there is danger, we’ll take care of each other, in the heart of the woods,” you might wonder if she has seen any particular Sondheim musicals lately.)

In her verses, she’s expressing a commitment to establishing new patterns, even though the musical expertise of “Deeper Well” comes from her further honing old habits that worked so well for her on the last two records, where she established her own unassuming path into the pop firmament. And it all adds up to, for lack of a better term, a buzz. These days, the “Slow Burn” queen is still all about celebrating measured pleasures, just with fewer ashes.

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