Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Star-Crossed’ Is the Rare ‘Divorce Record’ That Boldly Embraces Mixed Emotions: Album Review

The irreverent wit of Kacey Musgraves’ first two albums has long since given way on the last couple to an earnestness and, most of all, a gravitas  about love — falling into it, on her last release, 2018’s Grammy-winning “Golden Hour,” and falling back out, in a big way, on the just-released “Star-Crossed.” She does allow herself one good laugh, though… not in the new record’s lyrics, but in its attendant merch. Fans who buy the deluxe boxed-set version of the album package will find, among its bonuses, a set of plastic press-on tears, which counts as cheeky in just about every way. It’s a meta wink at just how serious she is about feeling all the forlorn feels this time around, on an album in which Musgraves is nothing if not hardcore about going sadcore.

Sometimes a singer-songwriter knows how to beat a headline writer to the punch, and that’s true of Musgraves, who, deep into the album, prvides a handy summary of her transitional phase when she sings: “Golden hour faded black.” That’s a log line that puts into one phrase what sets this record apart from the last one — which is everything, just about, when it comes to feelings about love, fate and faithlessness. “Golden Hour” was unabashedly her honeymoon record, and she makes no fewer bones about “Star-Crossed,” its three-years-later follow-up, being her divorce album. The signing of paperwork is being invoked by the beginning of the second verse. No beating around the bush here — no slow burns, if you will — in getting to literal details about the album’s thematic crux.

Of course, that kind of confessional branding is irresistible to a certain audience, and maybe less so for a segment of music fans to whom irreconcilable-differences-as-a-concept-album may not actually be catnip. They may just want to know if they’ll get butterflies — if not an actual “Butterflies” remake — from the soundtrack to this misery business, as crafted by Musgraves and returning producer-co-writers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk. The answer there is a qualified yes, as “Star-Crossed” doesn’t sound nearly as bereft as it means to be in its interior life. Many tricks of the studio trade have been employed to make what is essentially again a balladic record have some pop buoyancy. And though you wouldn’t necessarily want to describe her vocal tone as affectless, there’s a consistency to the laid-back purity of her voice that kept the last album’s highs from getting too high and keeps these new lows from bottoming out, too. Her default mode is an inviting temperance, in sorrow as well as in the previous album’s joy., it’s as if, in good times and bad, all these things finally go gentle on her mind.

It should be noted that actually being sad about her split from fellow singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly puts “Star-Crossed” into a rare subcategory of breakup albums. Contemporary collections that deal with (as Tammy Wynette once spelled it out) D-I-V-O-R-C-E are supposed to be P-I-S-S-E-D, right? Musgraves never got the memo, and so “Star-Crossed” stands in stark contrast to, say, the Chicks’ 2020 “Gaslighter,” which, for a flagrantly enraged Natalie Maines, was mostly about scorched earth (and riveting for it). Our romantic heroine here is more inclined to take listeners on a journey that covers as many experiences and feelings as possible that might come up in the course of a major relationship ending. Her publicly deeming it “a tragedy in three acts” is just a slightly pretentious-sounding way of saying there might not be any one song here that sums up the whole episodic journey. It’s an album where she can be not so much “happy and sad at the same time” as heartsick, defiant, nostalgic, self-doubting, sassy, rueful and flatlining in the same divorce-court feedback loop.

The title song is meant to be a sort of emotional overture to all that, and it’s the only real dud on the album, feeling sort of arbitrarily tagged on to the beginning of the record as if somebody thought an album this wide-ranging needed its own theme song, or jingle, even, to introduce it and tie it together. Invoking Ennio Morricone’s Western chants and guitar is rarely too bad of an idea, but it hyperdramatizes an album that, fortunately, turns out to be about the subtler mixed feelings beneath the drama. Marriages tend to end for more mundane reasons than “flying too close to the sun” — but don’t worry, she’ll get to those, once Sergio Leone leaves the scene.

The album proper gets underway — Act 1, Scene 1 — with “Good Wife,” apparently written in real time when Musgraves thought a booster shot of maternal enthusiasm might be all the situation called for. The suggestion that “I could be more fun” sounds like an honest one, and its plaintive vulnerability quickly establishes that this isn’t going to be any kind of self-mythologizing album after all. (And maybe the album isn’t 100% levity-free after all; it’s hard not to smile when Musgraves, trying to picture what the perfect housewife would do, sings, “I could pack him a bowl.”) There’s an interesting disparity in this song, not for the last time, between the lyrics’ anxiety and the music’s comfort food, as Tashian and Fitchuk make a song about a marriage in early-to-mid-fail sound kind of like a sexy slow jam. It’s also far from the last time that they put Musgraves’ voice through some overt electronic treatments, which sometimes has the effect of enveloping you further in the song and sometimes jolts you a little bit out of it. They double-track her vocals a lot, too, as if two Musgraves might sound a little less vulnerable than one.

The album takes one break from its strict romantic-ruins theme for “Simple Times,” in which the singer prosaically determines that “being grown up kinda sucks” and waxes nostalgic over the “rager”/”pager” days of being a high-top-wearing, 7-11-loitering teenager back in Texas. (It was this song that allowed Spotify to do a release-week installation in Nashville this week where fans could celebrate Musgraves’ youthful memories, like a sort of miniature ’90s theme park — probably a good alternative to a divorce-themed pop-up.) That’s not a bad song, but as looking back goes, Musgraves is on much surer and sadder footing later on with “Camera Roll,” in which she swipes through all the photographic documentation of a relationship’s happier days and concludes, “I don’t wanna see ‘em / But I can’t delete ‘em.” Few listeners in the developed world won’t be able to relate to her descriptions of twin selfies as the basis of eventual self-torture.

Although anger isn’t far from a default mode for Musgraves on this record, she does kinda-sorta go there in one track, “Breadwinner,” a snarky song that’s softened only a little by being set to an easygoing disco beat right out of the previous album’s “High Horse.” It’s bound to be this one’s most talked-about track, for its feminist-forward look at how men who talk loudest about being able to handle a high-profile (or -income) woman might be least able to deal with it in the end. But even there, in a song with a cheerful electronic pulse that sounds ready-made for a girl-boss sing-along, she doesn’t quite get fully vituperative.

Musgraves has often been at her finest as a songwriter when she’s been at her least determinative; think back to the first album’s “It Is What It Is,” a number that wasn’t afraid to end a record on a set of mixed feelings. Part of the strength of “Star-Crossed” as an album is how much of it is spent in a state of non-resolution. It may sound counter-intuitive to say someone is shining her brightest in a state of confusion, but it takes self-knowledge as well as songwriting prowess to capture a story in mid-flight, when a situation could tip either way. There’s a peak moment of that in the acoustic ballad “Hook-Up Scene,” which has the singer describing the rush to move on to an active dating life after the split, and how the empty feelings that come from that leave her wondering whether her eagerness to leave and rejoin the open market was a tragic bungle. She offers advice to the lovelorn still stuck with their unsatisfying companionships: “Hold on tight despite the way they make you sad / Cause I wish I would have known we didn’t have it so bad.” By the end of the album, she’ll be singing a different tune — you know it has to end on at least the possibility of a triumphant note — but it’s her ability to reveal to the world that she’s at least had moments of wondering if she got it all wrong that marks this as mature work.

If you want a less conflicted counterpart to “Hook-Up Scene,” anyway, look no further than “Justified,” the title of which says almost all about feeling OK about moving back out into the singles world. And the arc of the record has moved from woe-is-me to defiant fait-accompli by the time she gets to “What Doesn’t Kill Me” (the title of which is followed by “…better run” as a kicker instead of “…makes me stronger”) and “There Is a Light,” which settles on acceptance of the severance as a decent tradeoff for no longer hiding her candle under a bushel. Does she believe it? Musgraves doesn’t overdo the forcefulness in this final stretch, leaving you wondering, as the music grows just a little more finger-picky and just a little less electronic, whether she buys her own bravado or is still trying to will it into being. Maybe you’ve been there.

Some fans might wish the album had more of the “you go, girl” tone we’ve been weaned to expect from pop divorce records, but its cornucopia of post-split feelings really counts as a feature, not a flaw. And one of the best things about “Star-Crossed” is its boldly weird but highly satisfying finale, a cover of the Spanish-language folk song “Gracias A La Vida,” written by the Chilean singer Violeta Parra and popularized across Latin America years later by Mercedes Sosa. The song already appears to non-Spanish speakers as a somewhat mysterious capper to the album, and it’s only more ambiguous if you know the lyrics and history of the song — a firm and powerful affirmation of the majesty of just being alive, recorded by someone who committed suicide shortly afterward. There’s a lot about Musgraves’ album that comes together in this unusual choice of closer — like the way that she and her co-producers, who’ve already filtered her voice in different ways throughout the record, choose a distinctly different vocal sound for each of the six verses of “Gracias A La Vida.”

There are a lot of different ways to live boldly and successfully, that final gambit seems to be saying — maybe including being married or forever romantically unmoored. Whatever it is she intends with this intriguing closing cover choice, anyway, it’s not the fade to black threatened earlier in the album. The magic hour has passed, but she’s stayed gold.

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