Review Summary: Are you ready for cosmic dream country?
Boasting lush ambient arrangements, autotuned southern-drawl vocals, and synth/woodwind/string flourishes, Starmaker
occupies a rather unique space within country music. With unwavering confidence, Honey Harper has embarked upon cosmic dream country
, and the results are far better than one might expect. This development is not totally unprecedented – Kacey Musgraves all but rolled out the carpet for such a progression with 2018’s rich, glossy Golden Hour
, a pop-country crossover hit that seemed to gaze toward the stars with both feet firmly planted in Earthly soil. Starmaker
could be viewed as that album’s reflection; Harper floats among the cosmos and sings to us from another galaxy – a dreamy, sprawling experience. It’s bold, soulful, and dynamic – and it may very well represent a new frontier for a genre that has been viewed as stagnant for decades.
The album’s genre-transcendence is evident from the word go
, as Harper’s vocals find themselves awash in vocoder during ‘Green Shadows’ in what basically transforms into an acoustically-underscored hymnal. As the record progresses, each song adds a new wrinkle to Starmaker
: the crystalline pianos and tropical sway of ‘In Light Of Us’, the harmonic vocal layering of ‘The Day it Rained Forever’, the surges of strings that underpin the album’s emotional centerpieces, ‘Suzuki Dreams’ and ‘Something Relative’ (an ode to a friend who died from a drug overdose), the airy pan flutes and flourishing synths that open up ‘Vaguely Satisfied’ like a ravine…the list goes on. With each page-turn is a new discovery; a new reason to keep listening to what is already a very digestible thirty-six minute experience.
What’s most surprising about Starmaker
is just how seasoned Honey Harper sounds in this novel approach. The production is nearly as smooth as his namesake, with remarkable attention paid to every detail while these haunting little numbers float around, about, and through you like ships passing in the night. The tracks bleed together effortlessly, creating a mesmeric quality that is underpinned by psychedelic guitar lines and Harper’s folksy whims. His wife and writing partner, Alana Pagnutti, contributes inspiring backing vocals throughout the record, which only adds to the tangible sense that Starmaker
is always rising and floating above us in some mysterious alternate dimension.
As the record pivots to its back half, Harper continues to pull tricks from deep up his sleeve. ‘Someone Else’s Dream’ sees Harper and Pagnutti at their most gorgeously intertwined during the song’s late duet. ‘Tomorrow Never Comes’ betrays the album’s sense of lucid calm with a pop-rock aesthetic that jolts the album to life, all before sinking into the soft bed that is ‘Strawberry Lite’ – a song that delicately confronts Harper’s fear of flying (and ironically features an audible jet engine during the opening seconds). The final bookend and title track sees his voice slipping from its raw, human form back into the heavily autotuned style that we witnessed at the album’s commencement, bringing Starmaker
full circle. The lyrical theme of this record is centered around a self-aware pursuit of fame in the music industry – the way that Starmaker
starts with him breaking free from autotune and then ends with him again succumbing to “the machine” is not accidental; it’s symbolic of the mental/emotional toll that his career is costing him. In addition to subtly great lyrics across the board, there are also plenty of keen nods and allusions within the music itself.
Harper’s illustrious debut rarely falters. One could argue that the songs deserve bigger hooks, but Starmaker
runs slow like molasses – the more time you spend with it, the more it draws you into its sticky sweetness. Some of the grit and charm of traditional country music is lost in the record’s immaculate production, although it’s a necessary casualty to achieve Starmaker
’s pristine clarity. For every possible step backwards there are multiple parallel steps forward, and it’s difficult to argue against the magical atmosphere that Harper has concocted here. This is very lush, star-lit country music that is practically breathtaking in the moment while transcending the typical boundaries of the genre. It's about time.