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Music Review: Kacey Musgraves’ 'Deeper Well' trades country-pop hooks for deep, folk-y meditation

This image released by Interscope Records shows "Deeper Well" by Kacey Musgraves. (Interscope via AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Just over a decade ago, Kacey Musgraves emerged as a fresh new voice in country music – a mid-tempo storyteller with an incredible acuity both in her lyrics and in her instrumentation, knowing just when to pick up the harmonica, whistle a tune or break out the vocoder.

In the years and award-winning albums since, she’s proven herself to be malleable: weaving disco-pop into her narratives where fitting (most memorably on “High Horse” from 2018’s “Golden Hour,” the love-forward release that earned her album of the year at the 2019 Grammys ), recording in Spanish ( “Gracias a la Vida” from 2021’s divorce record, “star-crossed” ), and most recently, recording a feature with Zach Bryan, which has become her first No. 1 hit (the sentimental “I Remember Everything," one of AP's picks for best of 2023.) In 2024, it has led to “Deeper Well,” a muted folk record with a warm kind of profundity.

The album opens with the ’60s folk-inspired “Cardinal,” a similar tone to its closer, “Nothing to be Scared Of” – acoustic guitars and Musgraves’ open-hearted narratives delivered through her glassy vocal delivery. Much of the album follows the format, but with quite a few surprises.

Those looking for capital-C country through Musgraves’ matured folk filter could skip to “The Architect,” a masterful acoustic rumination on a higher power. “Sometimes I look in the mirror and wish I could make a request/Could I pray it away? Am I shapeable clay? Or is this as good as it gets?,” she asks.

On “Anime Eyes,” Musgraves describes a “Miyazaki sky” and talk-sings her way through a kaleidoscopic, psychedelic detour. “Lonely Millionaire” is a surprising near-reimagination of Atlanta rapper JID’s “Kody Blu 31.” Seriously: he received a songwriting credit for the song, she does not rap, and it's a weeper.

For fans following Musgraves' career since the very beginning, “Deeper Well” is a noted evolution from “Follow Your Arrow,” the celebratory country-as-heck LGBT+ anthem from her 2013 debut album “Same Trailer Different Park." But the spirit is the same: Musgraves has long pushed the boundaries of her formative genre – whether its touring with Willie Nelson and Katy Perry – or when she made sure her co-writers Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally took the stage when she won the Country Music Awards Song of the Year Award in 2014 for her first hit; it was the first time two openly gay people stood on the CMA stage for an award. That she chooses to move her needle, here, in a softer direction feels fitting.

Sometimes, that means hyper-specific language of the current moment, like in the fingerpicking title track “Deeper Well.” “My Saturn has returned/when I turned 27,” she sings, referencing the popular astrological conceit that also appears on Ariana Grande’s latest album, “eternal sunshine.” “Everything started to change/Took a long time, but I learned.” There’s another line, “You’ve got dark energy,” that feels more like a text message than an effective lyric — and runs the risk of dating itself the moment the listener hears it — but that, too, could be a tool. Here, Musgraves is interested in a kind of existential bloodletting, revealing the depths of her thoughts about love and death trickle out in gorgeous-sounding songs with sweet melodies.

Like in the standout “Dinner with Friends,” her tear-jerkin' response to “The Sound of Music” classic “My Favorite Things,” in which Musgraves, atop piano and acoustic guitar, sings about all of the things she loves — and will miss — “from the other side” of life.

“My home state of Texas/The sky there, the horses and dogs,” she sings, “Intimate convos that go way into the night/The way that sun on my floor makes a pattern of light.”

As a whole, "Deeper Well” is a soft-pedaled album, but also one that celebrates her humanity. It's a nice change of pace — arguably the best kind — one with some familiarity.

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AP music reviews: https://apnews.com/hub/music-reviews