Album Review: Kacey Musgraves, ‘star-crossed’

Love, its inception, and its destruction are arguably the greatest sources of inspiration for artists. The disintegration of romantic relationships has resulted in some of the most fiery and poignant songs in modern music history. When it comes to divorce, however, the stakes are raised in every regard. Divorce albums, like Coldplay’s Ghost Stories and Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings, attempt to cover the grayscale rainbow that is the process of getting through and moving forward from the end of a marriage. With her fifth studio album, and its accompanying film, both titled star-crossed, Kacey Musgraves mostly succeeds at conquering this insurmountable task.

We last linked up with Kacey through Golden Hour, the gorgeous album that was showered with four Grammys including Album of the Year. With the opening track of star-crossed, Kacey turns the warm sunlight of Golden Hour into melancholy beams of starlight. “Let me set the scene / two lovers ripped right at the scene,” she croons gently over a pensive Spanish guitar-laden intro. It’s all very Shakespearean. Very “two households, both alike in dignity…” you know the rest. The nod to Romeo & Juliet is intentional. For most of star-crossed, particularly the first two acts, this is a devastating tale not unlike the tragedy of those titular characters. Kacey plainly takes us into the shadows of her trauma with lines like “and then the darkness came,” but she also sets the stage for the Greek and Christian influences that reveal themselves throughout the rest of the album: “Did we fly too high just to get burned by the sun? / No one’s to blame / ‘Cause we called all the angels to save us.” This is one of the most effective album-openers of the year; Kacey perfectly prepares the stage for her odyssey of reflection to play out on.

Divided into three acts like classic Greek tragedies, star-crossed’s opening act exposes the cracks in the foundation of her marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly. The album’s second track, “good wife,” is an instant standout. From the anguished “God help me be a good wife” in the chorus to the seemingly endless “good wife” checklist she rattles off in the verses, it’s a peek into Kacey’s psyche that truly feels unfiltered. Kacey, and her music, exists in a genre that is predicated on the most traditional and conservative iteration of Americanness. With “good wife,” she destroys the “wife” mold that she tried to fit herself into for the sake of her marriage and at the expense of her own peace. A lot of Kacey’s songwriting on star-crossed falls into cliché, but she makes sure to use the different elements of song structure to move her narratives along. During the bridge of “good wife,” Kacey acknowledges the uncomfortable and murky truth that it’s not as simple as leaving and moving on: “But without him, this house just wouldn’t be a home / And I don’t wanna be alone.” Ambiguity is the name of the game on star-crossed; despite its mostly definitive ending, gray areas are what make the album honest. On “cherry blossom,” which bears some similarities to Golden Hour’s “Wonder Woman,” Kacey likens herself to the iconic flower in the way that she gets swept up in the gusts of the twister that is her husband. The song’s repetitiveness is a bit of a hindrance, but the album recovers with the next song: “simple times.” Set against the demolition of a bridal shop in the star-crossed film, “simple times” becomes an anthem for the days of adolescence when adulthood didn’t impose its stresses onto Kacey. The album’s first act finds its conclusion with “if this was a movie.” The track is a bit on-the-nose given the literal movie that accompanies the album, but it’s a poignant moment that marks the first serious rut in Kacey’s marriage. “If this was a movie / love would be enough,” Kacey croons, but she knows that love is never enough when trying to make a relationship work.

Interscope / MCA Nashville

The album’s second act features a healthier balance of ballads and chugging mid-tempos. One instant standout is “justified,” the second single from star-crossed. Detailing the conflicting tornado of emotions that come by way of grief, Kacey gently croons over country-pop steel guitar, drums, and synths. Kacey has spent years toiling away at this sublime country-psychedelic-dance-pop fusion, and “justified” is one of her greatest efforts yet. On “breadwinner,” she gets into an even groovier tempo as she unpacks how her ex-husband’s insecurities (which were born out of toxic masculinity and antiquated gender roles) led to the demise of their marriage. “He wants your dinner / Until he ain’t hungry anymore / He wants your shimmer / To make him feel bigger,” she sings. Star-crossed’s second act has some of the album’s strongest songwriting moments. Kacey smartly brings the age-old themes of memory and reminiscence into the 21st Century with “camera roll.” Sure, it’s not the most imaginative lyricism, but not every track calls for that; this is a song that is elevated by how blunt and metaphor-stripped the lyrics are. Scrolling through old photos of a marriage is simply “chronological order and nothing but torture.” No need to make something sound pretty when it’s not pretty at all. On the other hand, however, songs like “angel” could have benefitted from melodies that are less drab and predictable. The song is an unflinching look at Kacey’s own shortcomings in the relationship, but it drags in a way that detracts from how pertinent the song is to the overall story.

The final act of star-crossed unfortunately features some of Kacey’s most derivative songwriting. “Keep lookin’ up” and “what doesn’t kill me” have admirable sentiments, but their lyrics read as corny 2010s-esque empowerment-core pop songs. The messages of these songs, and the rest of the album’s final act, are vital. Kacey refuses to wallow in the despair of her marriage’s end; she’s actively learning from the experience, expressing her gratefulness for the lessons learned, and moving forward with the new knowledge that she’s acquired. Unfortunately, lyrics like “Keep lookin’ up / Don’t let the world bring you down” and “Watch how I bend / But I’m, I’m not breaking” feel too elementary. Thankfully, the final two songs of star-crossed pull the album back on course. A disco-adjacent bop layered with flute, conga drums, and funky chants, “there is a light” is gorgeous. The song also soundtracks one of the best segments of the film: Kacey and her gang flip a church into a party filled with spinning lights, voguing, and euphoria born out of gratefulness. The album’s closer, “gracias a la vida,” a cover of Violetta Parra’s 1966 classic, features Kacey singing completely Spanish. The song’s title roughly translates to “thank you to life,” and there simply wasn’t a better way to conclude this record. Kacey pulls out one of the most stunning and expressive vocal performances of her career on this staticky acoustic guitar-backed cover.

By no means, is star-crossed perfect, but it is undoubtedly an honest, deeply personal, and nuanced look at Kacey’s journey through divorce and her life beyond it. With each album, Kacey becomes more ambitious and more committed to pushing the preconceived boundaries of country music. Along with its accompanying film, star-crossed is a terrific project. Even the weaker moments are miles ahead of anything that her peers are doing. Golden Hour was a difficult record to follow up, but star-crossed is just as rewarding in its exploration of grief, surrealist film imagery, and cross-genre blends. On “what doesn’t kill me,” Kacey sings, “Golden Hour faded black,” but if star-crossed proves anything, it’s that nothing can put out the light that Kacey carries within her.

Key Tracks: “star-crossed” | “justified” | “good wife” | “hookup scene” | “there is a light”

Score: 78

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