It isn’t easy to follow up a universally praised debut album, especially when you don’t have the novelty of the new in your corner. Sometimes what sounds so fresh is just by the virtue of being the first time your voice has been heard. The second time around, you can only rely on the strength of your material. Being different is no longer enough.
Thankfully, Kacey Musgraves follows up her universally praised debut album with a sophomore effort that is superior in every way. The songwriting is both more personal and more universal, her vocal performances are more nuanced, and the production more creative and varied.
The best tracks find her looking outward at small town life and turning inward at the same time, acknowledging that she is a product of her own environment. “Dime Store Cowgirl” and the title track are the best of the autobiographical numbers, and together they tell the tale of where she came from and how it made her who she is, but also why she had to leave. “Pageant Material” pushes back against the patriarchy of southern life, but subtly celebrates it, too, as if she’s saying, “Hey, this isn’t for me, but more power to you.”
She saves the real knives for the patriarchy of the music business, as highlight “Good Ol’ Boys Club” absolutely shreds Music Row’s refusal to be about how good you are, rather than who you know. She similarly tears down an always down friend on “Miserable,” where she refuses to be company to someone who only loves misery.
But the barbs here are limited, and they usually only come out when she’s in protective mode for herself or for others. One of the best tracks is “This Town,” which celebrates a little town becoming bigger, but reminds that, “as big as we’re getting, this town’s too small to be mean” because “around here, we all look out for each other.”
There are some nice romantic tunes, like “Late to the Party,” but I find her work most interesting when she’s talking about the bigger picture. “Family is Family” is the best celebration of family I’ve heard in a long time, reveling in dysfunction because they’re the only ones you can really count on in the end, anyway. And while at first I found it too derivative of “Follow Your Arrow,” I’ve come to love “Cup of Tea,” which simply states that you can’t be everyone’s favorite, because some like the bitter and some the sweet.
There is some filler here and there, but even the lesser tracks are hard to be too critical of, because they’re still well-written and performed. They just don’t shine as brightly as the others. Maybe they’re just not my cup of tea.
But as a whole, Pageant Material is a solid sophomore collection that fulfills the promise of her debut album, which I liked well enough, but not nearly as much as this one.
Recommended Tracks: “Cup of Tea,” “Family is Family,” “This Town,” “Good Ol’ Boys Club”