Kacey Musgraves barely sets the scene. Within the first few lines of her new album, star-crossed, two lovers wake up from the perfect dream, only to be met with darkness. Before you know it, the East Texas songwriter – who filed for divorce a little over a year after her immaculate third album, Golden Hour, won the Grammy for Album of the Year – is signing the papers and moving out of their shared home. Where Golden Hour basked in the glow of her new marriage to fellow Nashville singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly, star-crossed chronicles its dissolution. And despite its dramatic presentation – the 15-track LP is billed as a “tragedy in three parts” and is accompanied by a film of equal length – the arrangements here are intimate and her delivery modest and restrained, laying out the story in relatively straightforward terms. Even with the acknowledgment that this is “golden hour faded black,” she revels in the radiant simplicity that gave her previous album its universal appeal, attempting to stay more or less in the same lane while venturing into much darker emotional territory.
The results, unfortunately, are mixed, though mostly in an intriguing or unglamorous rather than downright offensive manner (‘cherry blossom’, which includes the line “Tokyo wasn’t built in a day,” is a notable exception). At her best, Musgraves can bring out the nuance and tension of a phrase like “happy and sad at the same time” without coming off as trite or corny, just as she can make her fusion of modern production and retro-pop flourishes sound effortless and inviting. This is still true on star-crossed. Her longing for the ‘simple times’ only accentuates the weariness and melancholy in her voice. On ‘if this was a movie..’, she indulges in a romantic fantasy undercut by dreamy, despondent production that almost renders the ultimate “but it’s not a movie” redundant, a sign of surrender more than a sudden realization. But she often misses the mark when it comes to finding a deeper resonance in vague platitudes about the “light at the end of the tunnel” or at least twisting them in a clever way (“What doesn’t kill you/ Better run”).
One of Musgraves’ most potent observations is that “healing doesn’t happen in a straight line.” It also provides a sort of emotional compass for the record, which veers from one sentiment to the next despite being framed as having a distinct narrative thread. That line is from ‘justified’, a song in which she admits both parties bear some culpability for the breakup; two songs later comes ‘breadwinner’, which finds her at her most bitter. The writing is some of Musgraves’ most cutting – “He wants a breadwinner/ He wants your dinner/ Until he ain’t hungry anymore/ He wants your shimmer/ To make him feel bigger/ Until he starts feeling insecure” – deftly expressing personal heartbreak through an apparent reflection on gender roles, something she also does on ‘good wife’.
Depending on how you look at it, ‘breadwinner’ either the album’s most compelling track or the most frustrating. There’s absolutely nothing here to match the bite of the lyrics – the song is set to a lightly shimmering dance beat that makes the whole thing sound removed and understated, which is most likely the point: it underscores the feelings of emptiness and uncertainty that cast a shadow over the album, so much so that whatever details shine through barely matter. It’s easy for star-crossed to slip into the background, lulling you into thinking it’s just a moodier version of Golden Hour that can be enjoyed in pretty much any context, whether you’re invested in the story or not. But the contrast on ‘breadwinner’ is so jarring that you’re forced to pay closer attention, and Musgraves follows it up with some of the album’s best tracks.
In the folkier ‘camera roll’, the singer is once again tempted to lose herself in the past rather than coming at it from a place of reflection. This time, the writing is precise and all the more affecting: “Chronological order/ And nothing but torture/ Scroll too far back, that’s what you get.” Nothing on star-crossed is in order, and Musgraves struggles to push through the messiness of it all. She attempts to strike a balance between a sense of vulnerability on triumph, but the glistening sonic palette rarely suggests a full embrace of either. Which is why, when she delivers the lessons she’s learned with genuine emotion on the stripped-back ‘hookup scene’, things really couldn’t be simpler. That is, of course, until she ends the record with a bold, deconstructed version of Violeta Parra’s ‘gracias a la vida’, where her vocals are processed as if to uncover some hidden truth before the curtain closes. It’s her playing with time, bending her way through it, yet still arriving somewhere eternally familiar – and it’s the album’s one true revelation.