Reviews

Kacey Musgraves Creates a Modern Tragedy On star-crossed

Kacey Musgraves, whether intentionally or not, has always resisted falling into industry molds. Her first two releases, Same Trailer, Different Park and Pageant Material were slighted by country radio for their mentions of same-sex marriage, smoking weed, and the “good ole’ boys’s club” of the music industry, even though her sound honored the genre’s rich history more than contemporaries like Florida Georgia Line could ever hope to.

Her mainstream breakthrough Golden Hour merged country, electropop, and disco and snuck up behind albums by Janelle Monae, Drake, and Brandi Carlile to win Album of the Year at the Grammys. Since then, her star power has catapulted but she has experienced almost no radio play in pop or country radio. 

Her latest release, star-crossed, capitalizes on Golden Hour’s success and accomplishes a near-impossible feat: it exists in conversation with its adored predecessor while deftly exploring new, complex territory lyrically and musically. The risks Kacey takes are strategic and pointed as she relies on her the same toolbox of shuffling melodies, psychedelic influences, and matter-of-fact lyrics to enrapture her listeners once again. Complete with a high-budget companion film, star-crossed cements Kacey Musgraves as an artist fulfilling her role as industry trailblazer, even in the midst of deep personal pain and transition (her divorce with fellow singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly, and the subject of the album). 

star-crossed is structured like a three act tragedy; in the first, Kacey finds herself desperately trying to keep the warmth and light of Golden Hour alive, to no avail. In the second, she sifts through anger, sadness, and confusion as the dust around the failed relationship settles. In the last, she takes her first uncomfortable steps forward into an uncertain future. The concept is strong and anchors unwieldy emotions in a plot structure-as-old-as-time. 

It’s difficult not to compare star-crossed to Golden Hour because it functions as its foil, or even its melancholy older sister; and as easily as she birthed the sun-streaked haze of Golden Hour, Kacey and longtime production partners Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk create an equally spacey universe on star-crossed. This time, though, the sonic world is a little more variegated. From a slew of flamenco-inspired guitar moments (most notably on the title track) to a frenetic flute solo on post-breakup-euphoria-anthem “there is a light,” the experimentation is purposeful and nearly always successful. She even steps more into the traditional country landscape this time around; “hookup scene” is a finger-picked guitar track rueing the emotional emptiness that comes with casual flings, and “keep lookin’ up” is an ode to that all-American rugged optimism that opens with the line “Grew up in the sticks where there ain’t no light/But the stars were big and bright.”

There’s even some obvious parallels to her previous work in the details of the songs themselves. The delightfully petty “breadwinner” is the post-divorce version of “High Horse” that sees Kacey calling out her ex for being threatened by her success, and “what doesn’t kill me” includes the standout self-referential lyric “golden hour faded black.” “easier said” is the dark underbelly of the mushroom-trip inspired “Oh, What a World,” describing the uncomfortable realization that achieving a sense of true love isn’t effortless like Golden Hour implied; it’s an uphill, and maybe even unachievable, climb. 

 Other highlights of the album include “good wife” and “camera roll.” The former opens the “first act” of the album and sees Kacey desperately trying to fulfill her role as a partner while being plagued with doubt about her ability to do so and the relationship itself. The latter is a starkly modern heartbreak ballad about the pain of looking through old photos with an ex, and it closes with an admission of fault so subtle you might miss it: “There’s one where we look so in love/Before we lost all the sun/And I made you take it.” 

Although Kacey adeptly explores several facets to her divorce, she grazes over some possible lyrical depth in favor of writing about more emotions. This is, in part, aggravated by the fact that the album doesn’t have the breathing room to allow the listener to immerse themselves in Kacey’s experiences and reflections. Though two songs (“good wife” and “there is a light”) nearly hit the four-minute mark, the album seems to breeze past almost every critical emotional conclusion in favor of moving onto the next. Impressively, given this, the catharsis the album gives a listener when they finish the record remains mostly intact. The synthy sound of the album creates an ocean just big enough for the emotions to safely swim in. 

The biggest shock on the album, however, is that the most emotionally vulnerable moment on the record is the only song Kacey didn’t write herself. Everyone has that song that pulled them through a moment of transition and pain, a song that seems irrevocably connected to your soul. “Gracias a la vida” is that song for Kacey, a deeply heartbreaking yet simple ode to life written by Violetta Parra and popularized by Mercedes Sosa. The fact that Kacey, who has written every song she has ever released but one (“Are You Sure?,” Pageant Material’s hidden track featuring the original artist, Willie Nelson), included this song on a meticulously arranged record communicates something that her own lyrics cannot. “It keeps reaching through time and living on,” Kacey said of “Gracias a la Vida, “and I wanted to apply that sonically to the song, too.”

“Gracias a la vida” closes the album in grand mystique, bringing Kacey’s personal tragedy to a close but universalizing her pain. It bestows gratitude upon both the joy of the Golden Hour era and the pain of the current one, paying tribute to it all and welcoming the breadth of possibility of the next chapter. It’s an artful conclusion to an ultimately successful album, one that proves Kacey’s songwriting chops once again and continues to establish her as one of the most effortless genre-benders making music today. 

star-crossed is out now.

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