On Star-crossed, Kacey Musgraves goes it alone
Recorded in the wake of her divorce, the singer's new album feels like both the essence of country music (love hurts, life is hard) and an extremely 2021 refraction of it.
Generally speaking, the only beneficiaries of heartbreak are diets and divorce lawyers. For everyone else, it's hell, though the music industry may beg to disagree: Pop history would be incomplete without a long and starry list of superlative breakup albums, from Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear through Amy Winehouse's Back to Black and Adele's 21 — records so full of fire and fury and raw feeling that they often rightfully go down as their makers' best work. (Without romantic conflict, Fleetwood Mac might have been nothing but a dream catcher and a tambourine.)
Enter Kacey Musgraves, who introduced herself on her 2013 major-label debut, Same Trailer Different Park, as Nashville's rebel sweetheart; the rhinestone cowgirl with a song in her heart and a stud in her nose, warbling about weed and one-night stands and following your arrow wherever it points. Hers aimed squarely at success: a winning stretch of irreverent songcraft and crossover tour slots (Willie Nelson, Katy Perry, Harry Styles); a storybook courtship and 2017 marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly. Three albums and six Grammys later — including an Album of the Year prize for 2018's Golden Hour — the 33-year-old Texas native arrives freshly unhitched on Star-crossed, a record whose themes feel like both the essence of country music (love hurts, life is hard) and an extremely 2021 refraction of it.
"Let me set the scene/Two lovers ripped right at the seams/They woke up from the perfect dream/And then the darkness came," she intones on the sparse, spiraling title track in Star's opening moments, guitar lines weeping prettily. "I signed the papers yesterday/You came and took your things away/Moved out of the home we made/And gave you back your name/What have we done?" the singer wonders woefully as harp strings glimmer and sigh, a mournful dispatch from some spaghetti-Western badlands littered with tumbleweeds and lost souls.
Moments later, on the loping, low-slung "Good Wife," she's back to the beginnings, a hopeful bride channeling a laundry list of best practices and roads not taken. "Simple Times," too, longs melancholically to turn back the clock, recalling the teenage ease of lip gloss and trips to the mall ("I won't be waiting by the phone/So you can hit me on the pager"). "If This Was a Movie…" imagines a big-screen love strong enough "to save us from the darkness/That's inside both of us," while the airy shuffle of "Justified" makes a quiet case for moving on.
If the tone for most of the record's first half tips heavily toward 2 a.m. regrets and tempos that rarely rise above a broken heartbeat, the BPMs shift, however briefly, on "Breadwinner." With its tart warnings to steer clear of a meal-ticket man who "wants your shimmer/To make him feel bigger/Until he starts feeling insecure," the track feels like a buoyant callback to the chicken-fried wit of past standouts like "High Horse" and "Biscuits." On "Camera Roll," she tries valiantly to overcome the self-imposed misery of scrolling — "I don't wanna see 'em/But I can't delete 'em/It just doesn't feel right yet" — before sliding into more muted reflections on empty connections ("Hookup Scene") and post-split resilience ("Keep Lookin' Up," " What Doesn't Kill Me"). "There Is a Light" starts out in the same earnest vein until it breaks open, improbably, into a kind of groovy pan-flute disco.
For all her earworm choruses and easy wordplay, Musgraves has never really been a singles artist, which seems to have little to do with commercial viability. She's a critical darling whose albums regularly rack up major industry awards and platinum sales plaques — though the singer has alluded in the past to being punished by country radio for refusing to play by glad-handing rules that often apply far more harshly to females in the genre. "I can write a melody, and maybe I can even make it rhyme/I've never been scared of what I wanted to be, and you know me/ I've never been afraid to shine," she coos ruefully on "Easier Said." Maybe they'll actually embrace her this time. Most likely they won't, but Star-crossed sounds a lot like the manifesto of a girl who's already learned the hard way how to go it alone. Grade: B+