Like all good country music, Kacey Musgraves' "A Very Kacey Christmas" splits the difference between searing sincerity and craven pandering, and understands that you can't have one without the other.
Go ahead and start with 'Christmas Makes Me Cry,' one of four originals here, and the best and most Musgraves-ian in its ability to capture a feeling we all have but maybe didn't know how to articulate or maybe didn't know that we could admit. Set to lite, barely-there lilt and twang, Musgraves sings, "I know that they say, 'Have a happy holiday'/ And every year, I swear, I sincerely try/ But Christmas, it always makes me cry"—throwing out a hankering the rest of the room has been waiting for her to verify as fact. And on a cover of 'What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?' Musgraves plucks the obligatory pathos out of the hard-partying holiday, with each line sung as if its nodding to that NYE double bind: It's a day when you're expected to have fun, so it's nearly impossible to have fun and even if you have fun, it doesn't feel like enough fun.
And so, "A Very Kacey Christmas" is a bittersweet and at times just plain depressed affair, though it houses some holiday camp—Hawaiian flourishes throughout, and a couple of larks ('Christmas Don't Be Late' of "Alvin and the Chipmunks" fame, 'I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas')—and counters Christmas melancholy with a temporal, fleeting goofiness. On a giddy weed duet with Willie Nelson, 'A Willie Nice Christmas,' Musgraves toasts, "may we all stay higher than the angel on top of the tree" and lists non-Christian holiday celebrations (Kwanzaa, Chanukah) and says they're "all the same," a naive though nevertheless necessary nod to inclusiveness because country music is never far from racist cracker music and Trump is our president-elect, in case you forgot. This is holiday music that finds joy in the little blips of subversive self-expression—the aural equivalent of your family's cool cousin who lets the kids drink a little bit of boozed-up egg nog or points out to them that when Brenda Lee sings "later we'll have some pumpkin pie" on 'Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree' it sounds a lot like she says "later we'll have some fuckin' pie."
This is Musgraves' position in country music—a pragmatic rebel and sentimental realist. Her major label debut, 2013's "Same Trailer, Different Park," positioned her as an attitudinal poet of modern country's white semi-suburban base: bathetic songs for—not about, but for—Kohl's Shoppers and Chipotle line-endurers (not that there's anything wrong with that; Kohl's has great deals, Chipotle is fucking delicious). On 'Merry Go 'Round,' she captured the limits of small towns in a way that only someone close to them can diagnose and condescend to a tad and get away with ("We get bored, so we get married/ Just like dust, we settle in this town"). And then there is 'Step Off,' a thrilling ditty about provincial toxicity that can hold its own in a conversation with similarly empowering, petty songs such as Loretta Lynn's 'Fist City' and the Dixie Chicks 'Not Ready To Make Nice.'
The follow-up to "Same Trailer, Different Park" was 2015's "Pageant Material" (which made City Paper's Top Ten Non-Local Albums list), an ambitious throwback where Disney pop meets western swing. On the title track, Musgraves declares she's not "pageant material" and observes, "I'm always higher than my hair/ And it ain't that I don't care about world peace/ But I don't see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage." And on 'Family Is Family,' she begrudgingly praises blood relatives who "own too much wicker and drink too much liquor" and "might smoke like chimneys, but give you their kidneys." It's funny, lackadaisically devastating stuff.
And now, a holiday record full of favorites, oddball picks, and a few originals. Maybe you'd expect something better from Musgraves than a Christmas album so early on in her career, but that's the conceptual point here: We're all roped into the holidays, you can't escape them, so might as well embrace them. It helps that Musgraves is an expert curator who knows that songs are more than just songs—when she played Baltimore back in 2015, she covered Britney Spears' 'Toxic' and Nancy Sinatra's 'These Boots Are Made For Walking,' constructing a syllabus of female pop perseverance—and she applies similar context-tweaking spirit to Christmas music. The inclusion of 'Feliz Navidad' is perfunctory Christmas album stuff on the surface, but in 2016, a white country singer from Golden, Texas performing this Spanish language holiday classic is a quiet Trump rejoinder (so are the Tejano flourishes on the album).
With nods to weed and inclusivity, the PG-13-provocations on "A Very Kacey Christmas" feel big but never cynical or faux-edgy. It is not radical like many of James Brown's Christmas songs wherein the Godfather of Soul reminds you that this is a racist garbage country every opportunity he gets, but it's not safe either and it isn't Vince Guaraldi's profoundly sad "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (what my pal Rob Harvilla over at the Ringer identified as Guaraldi's "god-tier melancholia"), but it is well-crafted Christmas music with a heavy heart (see also: Wham's 'Last Christmas' or Prince's 'Another Lonely Christmas').
There is a sense of going through the motions on "A Very Kacey Christmas" for sure, of making the best out of a dicey obligation, but isn't that what the holidays are about if you're a right-thinking person? Going through the motions? Doing the best you can? You grin and bear it at times, because your dad voted for Trump or your aunt's a petty asshole, and you do what you can to help make it through the night—a joint in the backyard, three too many beers, a forced dissociative calm, whatever. "A Very Kacey Christmas" makes you buy into this whole holiday endeavor—for its duration at least—because Musgraves is grinning and bearing it right there with you.