Album Reviews

Beyoncé – Cowboy Carter

(Parkwood/Columbia) UK release date: 29 March 2024

Queen B is back, and countrified

Beyoncé - Act II Cowboy Carter In 2016, Beyoncé appeared at the Country Music Association Awards, performing Lemonade‘s track Daddy Lessons with The Chicks (a band who themselves have had a somewhat complicated relationship with their audience). The reaction she received that night, both in the room and online, ranged from snobbish rejection to downright racial abuse. And, lo, Act II: Cowboy Carter was born.

As Beyoncé herself has said, the seeds of her eighth solo album were planted that, but it’s far too simplistic to dub Cowboy Carter as her “country album”. As Linda Martell (the first black female artist to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and just one of a number of Country legends popping up on Cowboy Carter) says at one point: “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?”

They are indeed, and Cowboy Carter follows Act I: Renaissance in her planned trilogy demonstrates this by merrily skipping over all manner of them. There are elements of country to be heard, but this isn’t a record dripping in pedal steel and banjo. There are nods to folk, bluegrass, soul, rap and even opera – and, as ever with a Beyoncé album, there’s a LOT to take in, with a running time of almost 80 minutes and 27 tracks in all.

Opening track American Requiem feels like a declaration of intent, a big, gospel-tinged anthem, which explicitly mentions that CMA Awards incident (“then the rejection came, said I wasn’t country enough”) while also tracing the black history of country music. It’s not your typical Beyoncé banger, but is one of several moments where the music completely wrongfoots you.

There are so many references to popular music history it’s tricky to keep track of. There’s a faithful cover of The Beatles‘ Blackbird (originally written by Paul McCartney as a tribute to the Civil Rights movement), and Dolly Parton herself introduces a new, updated version of the classic Jolene. Gone is the poignant desperation and vulnerability of the original, and in place is a startling, borderline aggressive threat to her love rival – in this version, Beyoncé is “warning you, don’t come for my man”, rather than begging. Because, let’s face it, you can’t quite imagine Beyoncé begging anyone.

There are spoken word interludes from a typically stoned sounding Willie Nelson, samples and interpolations of Chuck Berry and Patsy Cline, and in the astonishing stomp of Ya Ya, nods to both Good Vibrations and These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ can be heard. During the latter stages of murder ballad Daughter, Beyoncé even starts singing the Italian aria Caro Mio Ben – one of many examples where simply listening to Cowboy Carter becomes a bit of a dizzying experience.

And there are also plenty of examples of Beyoncé doing what she does best – masterful pop songs. Texas Hold ‘Em is an impossibly catchy hoe-down, 16 Carriages looks back to her early days in Destiny’s Child and features a truly impressive vocal, while II Most Wanted (a duet with Miley Cyrus) owes a slight debt to Fleetwood Mac‘s Landslide.

While it’s impossible to fault Cowboy Carter’s ambition, it’s sometimes a bit too sprawling for its own good. Eighty minutes is a long runtime for an album, and some tracks inevitably sag a bit, especially in the middle section. There are also some moments, like Spaghetti and Sweet * Honey * Buckin’, which feel a bit all over the place – chaos can sound exciting, but it’s exhausting over the course of an album.

That need for an editor aside though, there’s an awful lot to admire in this second instalment of Beyoncé’s very own American Trilogy. Quite what Part 3 will hold is anyone’s guess, but it certainly won’t be dull.

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