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Amanda Bergeman April 12, 2024
Photo of Kacey Musgraves singing and playing guitar at a concertWikimedia Commons

Kacey Musgraves, the Grammy award-winning country singer-songwriter, writes about her life and the lessons she has learned along the way on her latest album,“Deeper Well.” It may be her most spiritual work yet. “Deeper Well” explores intelligent design, the afterlife, peace and eternity. This is not worship music but rather songs about theological concepts for a secular audience. Musgraves does not have confidence—or faith—in these ideas, but they enchant her all the same. In her lack of faith, she honestly explores her desire to know a creator she isn’t even sure exists—a feeling that people of faith may know but never express.

Musgraves’s opening track, “Cardinal,” questions whether the brilliant red bird is a message from beyond the grave. She sings that this bird appeared right after she had suddenly lost a friend. This is a common belief among American Christians: The scarlet bird is supposed to represent the blood of Christ and therefore a message from heaven. The ’70s-style strings evoke mysticism. She sings: “Are you just watching and waiting for spring?/ Do you have some kind of magic to bring?” This uncertainty sets the tone of the entire album. Musgraves plants one foot into the spiritual world and one foot outside, unsure whether she can trust her own instincts.

In the album’s titular track, Musgraves sings of avoiding dark energy, giving up drugs and seeking a “deeper well.” She wants to move away from burning out and numbing out and connect to what is most important to her. She sinks into this depth in “Dinner with Friends,” a song mourning the earthly delights she will lose when she dies. The soft melancholy piano accompanies the “things I would miss from the other side”: “Intimate convos that go way into the night/ The way the sun on the floor makes a pattern of light.” Even if you believe in the promise of heaven, it hurts to contemplate losing these simple pleasures. This is not selfish or sinful but rather a delight in the joys of earth. Life is not just pain and grief but also “The feelin’ you feel when you’re looking at something you made.” It is joy, warmth, peace and love. Life is a gift, something to be treasured for the short time we have it.

In “Heaven Is,” Musgraves expresses doubts about heaven’s existence but again takes solace in the heaven she has found here on earth. The last line bargains, “If all I have is the light in your eyes/ That’s what heaven is.” In an NPR interview, Musgraves said, “To me, nature is God.” That theology is most evident in “The Heart of the Woods,” a warm acoustic campfire song about communication in a network of roots between the trees: “It’s in our nature to look out for each other.” It’s a lovely sentiment, that we are all interconnected and dependent on each other. We can lean into this sense of trust and peace.

Sway” looks to nature to model surrender to these bonds of interdependence. “Maybe one day I’ll learn how to sway/ Like a palm tree in the wind I won’t break/ I’ll just bend.” The song mirrors the wisdom of Matthew: “Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them.” Musgraves longs to surrender control and live in this state of trust and acceptance. She told NPR: “In my meditation practice and just throughout this past year and writing these songs, I’m trying to really trust that nature has my back. God, nature, the universe, the flow of life, the cosmos, or whatever it is. If one door closes, something else will make sense, hopefully. I’m just trying to trust that, through relationships ending, things changing, aging, seeing my parents age, everything.”

The Architect” is the most overtly religious song on the album. Yet even here Musgraves keeps God at arm’s length. Calling him “the architect” doesn’t imply any expectations or association with formal religion. It may be a sign of maturity that she admits she doesn’t have all the answers, but this uncertainty may also be complacency, a way to avoid what a true commitment to faith would mean for her life. One can marvel at an apple or a tree without needing to go to church every Sunday. This questioning does not require following any statutes.

Jade Green” has a witchy Fleetwood Mac flair: she sings, “I wanna bathe in the moonlight/

Until I'm fully charged/ Come into my power/ And heal the broken parts”. This new-age spirituality is very seductive: Crystals and astrology give a sense of power and understanding without requiring changes in behavior. But these grasps at power and control will not aid her in her attempt to “sway” with the flow of life. In “Jade Green” she also admits to saying “a little prayer to drive away the dark.”

Musgraves is earnestly seeking something greater, but this anchorless spirituality clings to whatever it finds. She’s scanning over the divine, unable to get a handle on it. She is trying to make sense and meaning out of the messy reality of her life experience. The songs fluctuate between sin and grace, trust and anxiety, understanding and confusion, love and isolation.

Failing to recognize sin does not keep it from biting you. In “Too Good To Be True,” she sings of her anxiety in an uncommitted intimate relationship. She feels like she’s in a dream, but she’s plagued by the fear that her partner will hurt her the way she’s been hurt in the past. “Please don’t make me regret/ Openin’ up that part of myself.” The last line begs, “Made some breakfast, made some love/ If this is what dreams are made of/ Please don’t wake me.”

In “Giver/Taker” she sings of needing an all-encompassing love but fears her partner is unwilling to give it. “Honey, all your love, not just one piece/ Hopin’ that it ain’t too much for me to ask.” She is clear about her needs, and what she is willing to do to satisfy them, but they still go unmet: “’Cause I would give you everything that you wanted/ But I would never ask for any of it back/ And if I could take only as much as I needed/ I would take everything you had.” She gets stuck in a pattern of anxiety and regret, settling for someone who cannot give her the full love she desperately needs.

Musgraves ends the album with “Nothing to Be Scared Of,” a lullaby that could be from God to her, from her to us, from her to a lover, or from her to herself. It’s a hopeful, resolute ending. “Demons in your mirror together, we’ll escape them,” she sings. It’s a song of radical acceptance and connection: “Come to me and drop your bags/ And I’ll help you unpack them.” She is finally able to surrender her anxiety to trust in fate: “Made a list of everything that I’ve been busy chasin’/ But if a train is meant for me/ It won’t leave the station and pull away.” It’s a triumphant light at the end of the tunnel shining hope, promise and trust on what the future will bring.

For Musgraves, drilling deeper into her well is an exploration of the eternal and spiritual, an attraction to something greater without label or definition. She finds beauty and power in spirituality outside of faith, but that longing inadvertently touches on some deeper theology.

St. Augustine of Hippo wrote in his Confessions that God made and formed us, and that “our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Many people seeking the eternal find a beauty in spirituality outside of faith, largely due to religious alienation or trauma. Everyone chooses their own relationship with God, but too often, the actions and attitudes of human beings stand in the way.

“Deeper Well” encourages a rekindling, an invitation back into the journey of spirituality, enriching life on your own terms. Hopefully, these songs will inspire listeners to keep asking questions, spreading seeds of spiritual peace and enlightenment. And hopefully, Musgraves will continue wading into deeper wells.

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