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Beyoncé's 'Cowboy Carter' is a portrait of the artist getting joyously weird

Beyoncé's <em>Cowboy Carter</em> has ignited discourse about the place of Black musicians in country music. But it's also evidence of its creator's desire to break genre walls by following her most eccentric impulses.
Mason Poole
/
Courtesy of the artist
Beyoncé's Cowboy Carter has ignited discourse about the place of Black musicians in country music. But it's also evidence of its creator's desire to break genre walls by following her most eccentric impulses.

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After two months of anticipation, Cowboy Carter has been out in the world for nearly a fortnight, and the discourse is thick as sawdust on a honky-tonk floor. Beyoncé's spangled opus, as lengthy and florid as a Sergio Leone classic — it really could have been called The Good, the Bey and the Ugly -- has generated more think pieces than any pop phenomenon since her friendly rival Taylor's Eras tour.

I've kept track of the coverage of Cowboy Carter and it's, well, something. Actually it's everything, ranging from paeans to (not too many) pans. Not weighing in hasn't been an option for most music writers, who have spilled tons of ink documenting the album's backstory, tracing its references, and examining its work of legacy building. What could I add to the discourse? Well, this: Whether it's considered a champion's walk, an overlong stumble, a powerful political gesture or a highly personal cri de couer — one thing Cowboy Carter is, undeniably even if no one has said it, is weird. And that's a wonderful thing.

Not that Beyoncé herself would ever admit to her own eccentricity. She's declared herself a diligent student of the genre she sought to revise, and many of the touchstones on this massive grab bag of ballads and bangers check the boxes of cultural intervention. She features Dolly and Willie; shows us her boots, brand-name jeans and whiskey bottle; includes a murder ballad and her perspective on that ultimate country emblem, the American flag. (She sees it as red: blood, Alabama clay, indigenous people.)

Her inclusion of the undersung Black Grand Ole Opry pioneer Linda Martell as a collaborator nods to efforts to rectify historical omissions that have been going on in and around Nashville for years — shoutout to the Black Opry crew, to artist and radio host Rissi Palmer and to Martell's granddaughter, who continues to crowd-fund a documentary that Beyoncé really should just finance.

But the way she assembles these hardly unique elements is startling. Sidestepping either a conventional foray into country's traditional sounds or a risk-averse pop approach that would just use those elements as window-dressing, she and her dozens of collaborators assemble a cosmic omnibus of reference points while drilling down on her long-standing obsessions. While it's correct to call this album an epic and a strong political statement, it's an idiosyncratic one, more akin to Jim Jarmusch's off-kilter visions of American heritage — especially Mystery Train -- than, say, Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon.

It may seem off to identify eccentricity in a project that includes radio-ready Miley Cyrus and Post Malone collabs, and which was quickly endorsed by none other than the Vice President. Yet the first thing I thought of when I sat down to listen to Cowboy Carter was an album from 1967 that's beloved by many rock cognoscenti for its very peculiarness. Van Dyke Parks's Song Cycle was the first solo album by the noted composer, arranger and producer. It is a shambling, sunnily psychedelic portrait of California living from the perspective of a transplanted white East Coaster with Southern roots. (Parks was born in Mississippi but grew up in Princeton singing in a boys' choir.)

Rich with strings and gorgeous melodies and rife with punnily poetical lines like, "Nowadays a Yankee dread not take his time to wend to sea" in a song about Parks's own experience trying to make it within the L.A. music biz hustle, no less, Song Cycle features Parks's birdlike warble, and by birdlike, I don't mean Beyoncé's operatic forays on new songs like "DAUGHTER" or "FLAMENCO," but Tweety Bird or the Peanuts' Woodstock. Parks made the unfinished psychedelic masterpiece Smile with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and later worked with 21st-century visionaries Joanna Newsom and Gaby Moreno, among others. But Song Cycle is his strange baby. Though it's a rich work that offers real insight into the melting late 1960s American West Coast dream, Song Cycle is not for everyone. Parks experimented joyfully with song structure, sound effects and lyricism, painting a floating world that requires time and sympathy to comprehend.

Cowboy Carter sounds absolutely nothing like Song Cycle, yet I thought about the latter as I sunk into the non-linear, fragmentary experience of listening to it. I appreciate how Beyoncé sticks to her guns throughout, just as Parks maintained his whimsicality and dreaminess. Stacked harmonies do here what strings do on Song Cycle, lending grandeur to the opening "American Requiem" and tenderness to the ballads "MY ROSE" and "FLAMENCO" (the latter pairs them artfully with Andalusian hand-claps); yet those vocals also set a kind of Broadway stage for the songs, rendering them winsomely surreal. The album's employment of banjo and pedal steel signify country, sure, but they're used in unusual ways, as Parks uses accordion and balalaika. The distortions are highly individualistic, nothing like what current country sounds like. (Exception: that Post Malone duet, "LEVII'S JEANS.") Same with the roots references. The interlude "OH LOUISIANA" speeds up a Chuck Berry vocal to turn that rock and roll founder into helium. On the tour de force Tina Turner tribute "YA YA," Beyoncé begins with a spoken exchange with her background singers that calls back to her campy turn in Austin Powers in Goldmember as well as to Southern rap's most glorious weirdo breakthrough, Outkast's "Hey Ya!" Sure, this is historical work, but it's hardly textbook.

These tracks stand alongside others in a sprawl of concepts, tempos and tones until Cowboy Carter turns into a full-on megamix, its final four tracks returning to the dance party of Renaissance, abruptly concluded with a literal showstopper, the Broadway-ready "AMEN." The album is immersive, but it's a jerky, bucking rodeo ride, not a narrative that lends itself to easy absorption. And through it all Beyoncé bends country and blues tropes — those two genres are inseparable, something Cowboy Carter acknowledges — to the themes she can never abandon: the perils of attempted monogamy, the joy and terror involved in mothering and her own determination to be great, an ambition that she views as a responsibility more than a privilege.

Concept albums can be relatively straightforward, like Willie Nelson's classic Red Headed Stranger, but often they do come out ornate and leaky as their makers dump all of their ideas within the frame. Beyoncé nods sonically to a few that came after Song Cycle. At certain points, Sly and the Family Stone's murky funk on There's a Riot Goin' On comes to mind. Michael Jackson never made a full-on concept album, but that tarnished legend requires mention because Beyoncé's massive ambition rivals his more than anyone's. (Maybe Madonna's; she did make a concept record, Erotica. Or that soundtrack-maker Prince's.)

More recent touchstones include the high-concept forays of Janelle Monaé, whose "Tightrope" seems as much a touchstone for "YA YA" as does Tina Turner's shimmy, and the efforts of two of her collaborators on Cowboy Carter. Raphael Saadiq, who co-produced several tracks, released a similarly massive and emotionally affecting concept album, Jimmy Lee, in 2019. And the Virginia-born multihyphenate Shaboozie, a visionary character whom Beyoncé has apparently recognized as a kindred soul, paid tribute to the landscapes and culture of his native state on his own 2022 disquisition on the same themes as Cowboy Carter. Its title? Cowboys Live Forever, Outlaws Never Die.

When I associate Cowboy Carter with these equally adventurous and strange concept albums and the outsiders who made them, I don't mean to reduce the impact of her work or her centrality as an era-defining artist. Instead, I'm trying to free this fun and unfettered music from the burden of predefined significance. Beyoncé has, by her own will as well as her fans's needs, become what Doreen St. Felix calls an "übermatriarch," not only a biological mother but the nurturing, burdened mother of all of her faithful — and of Black America, a role she inherited and claimed from the equally eccentric and more reluctantly ennobled Aretha Franklin. The seriousness of her responsibilities has earned her a lot: millions nearing billions of dollars, a place among heads of state and a fan base that strikes fear in the hearts of naysayers. But for an artist, such success ultimately confines. Only a few have been able to remain playful and light-footed as their public images have hardened into marble.

Two such artists, as it happens, are ones Beyoncé directly takes on in Cowboy Carter: The Beatles, whose members never stopped releasing humorous and even nonsense songs alongside their wedding-and-funeral ballads and politicized anthems; and Dolly Parton, the most agile pop star of all, who's crossed into nearly every category that's interested her with her own birdlike laugh and dimpled smile. Dolly herself has deep and strange predilections: her many songs about dead children, for example, or her way of turning sexuality cartoonish not only as comic relief, but as a weapon. It's her oddball side as well as her musical genius that's allowed her to slip through so many doors.

Beyoncé did not create Cowboy Carter to honor white artists like Parton, but she made a wise decision by invoking her as a partner and a patron saint. In the spoken interlude that precedes Beyoncé's rewrite of her classic "Jolene," Parton refers to Beyoncé's famous line about a white woman's allure for her Black husband, "Becky with the good hair," as "that hussy with the good hair." She drawls out the insult, though, as if she's in the middle of a Hee Haw skit: huzzzzy. It's a goofy, enjoyably destabilizing moment — an eccentric gesture that reminds us that as serious as music can be, it's most powerful when its subversions are also fun.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.