Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ Is a Vivid Mission Statement. Let’s Discuss.

Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ Is a Vivid Mission Statement. Let’s Discuss.

LINDSAY ZOLADZ Welcome to the Smoke Hour, everybody. Wesley, I’m with you on the divergent listening experiences of “Renaissance” and “Cowboy Carter.” Approximately one billion plays later, “Renaissance” does not have a “skip” moment for me. “Cowboy Carter” is, as Pareles put it in his review, “a bumpier ride.” At least until it isn’t: From “Ya Ya” on, it shifts gears into the fluid, relentless flow she achieved on “Renaissance” — or to use a Beatles reference, that the Fab Four achieve on Side 2 of “Abbey Road.” There’s a lot here. I’m not sure all of it works, but some of it is sublime, and regardless it seems poised to extend Beyoncé’s improbable second imperial phase until the promised Act III. Giddy up and bow down.

SISARIO A weak spot in the cinema-auteur theory is that there’s really only one character in Beyoncé’s story, and that’s her. It’s more like an ultra-dramatic monologue.

ZOLADZ I want to zoom in on “Jolene,” which to me sums up so much about this album’s unruly ambition, its inevitable limitations and its irreverent, endlessly remixed approach to American musical history. Beyoncé’s “Jolene” isn’t a cover so much as an impassioned piece of fan fiction, rewriting Dolly Parton’s ballad of anguished jealousy into a cocksure taunt: “Jolene, I’m warning you, don’t come for my man.”

This inversion of power makes the song less vulnerable and emotionally effective than Parton’s original, but it also gestures toward a dynamic that Parton glosses over in her introduction to Beyoncé’s take, when she compares her auburn-haired “Jolene” to the notorious Becky with the good hair Beyoncé called out on “Lemonade”: “Just a hair of a different color,” Parton says, “but it hurts just the same.” Does it, though? Beyoncé’s lyric has a racial implication that Parton’s does not.

A far more interesting and successful song is “Daughter.” Here is the pathos that is missing from her “Jolene” — so deeply felt that Beyoncé has to borrow from opera to demonstrate the scope of her sorrow and craving for vengeance. “Daughter” is a bloody, modern-day murder ballad in the revisionist spirit of SZA’s “Kill Bill,” but it’s also the flip side of “Daddy Lessons,” the countrified tune off “Lemonade” that in some sense kicked off the “Cowboy Carter” experiment. “Daddy Lessons” was both affectionate toward and critical of that flawed fictionalized Daddy, but here Beyoncé laments their similarities: “If you cross me, I am just like my father, I am colder than Titanic water.”

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