album review

Kacey Musgraves Further Divorces Expectation on star-crossed

star-crossed is the first Kacey album that doesn’t call on any of the writers and producers who assisted with her biggest country chart hits. There’s freedom in that choice. Photo: Kacey Musgraves/YouTube

Kacey Musgraves writes beautiful, encouraging songs about coming to terms with the aspects of our lives that we can’t control and taking each day in stride instead. “Silver Lining,” the first song on the East Texas singer-songwriter’s 2013 major-label debut Same Trailer Different Park, details all the good that can come from riding out a storm, in life and in nature. Different Park’s “Follow Your Arrow,” named Song of the Year at the 2014 CMA Awards, is a pep talk for anyone who’s been ostracized for not fitting in. “Die Fun,” a gorgeous deep cut on 2015’s Pageant Material, wonders aloud why we waste so much time observing restrictive standards for adulthood. “Slow Burn,” the elegant country-rock opener of 2018’s Golden Hour, Album of the Year winner at the 2019 Grammys, toasts to moving through life at whatever pace feels right. As much as songs like “Follow Your Arrow,” “Space Cowboy,” and “Biscuits” honor a storied tradition of country performers invoking (or inverting) familiar idioms and colloquialisms to share relatable missives about the human condition — think Tammy Wynette’s “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” Garth Brooks’s “Friends in Low Places,” and Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett’s “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” — Kacey is also in conversation with a certain state of mind. She’s thumbing her nose at all of the church gossips and neighborhood terrors who get their jollies minding everyone else’s business. Musgraves’s work preaches a life where we mellow out, find true love, and smoke more pot instead of crucifying each other over our differences.

These songs can feel almost tailor-made for challenging the reserved, traditionalist audiences big country hits reach in America, and Pageant Material’s “Good Ol’ Boys Club” pushes this a step further, taking aim at music-industry executives who carelessly center men’s interests. (That gesture grows pithier when you remember that Kacey’s label had reservations about releasing “Follow Your Arrow” as a single before it earned her highest placements thus far on Billboard’s Hot 100 and Hot Country Songs charts and tipped savvy mainstream listeners off to her music.) Maybe the tedium of appeasing the boys club took a toll, and maybe it was just the tilt in perspective that discovering LSD tends to instigate, but Golden Hour carefully traversed other genres, most rewardingly on the ego-deflating disco jam “High Horse,” which, alongside Maren Morris and Zedd’s “The Middle,” earned pop-radio airplay and Grammys prestige. Kacey felt the pivot and the influx of new listeners might rankle someone but didn’t care. “Some people come with you onto the next one, and some people don’t,” she told NME in 2019. “That’s totally cool.” Anyone angry about Golden Hour’s three hip-hop beats and one crisp disco rhythm was revealing themselves as a fussy purist. Airplay on country radio had been finicky. Branching out was a no-brainer. The slow burn paid off.

In retrospect, Golden Hour was a transitional record signaling a commitment to continue toying with the mechanics of Kacey’s songs and not quite the pop pivot that was advertised. Her fifth album, star-crossed, released today, suggests the intention was never to leave country behind but rather to devise a more balanced and varied approach to it. The new songs mix and match ideas with a joyful abandon. “Cherry Blossom” rolls in on a crisp synth-pop groove and twists unexpectedly at the chorus into a driving roots-rock stomp that recalls deliciously zesty late-’80s Fleetwood Mac hits like “Little Lies” and “Everywhere.” On “Simple Times,” Kacey pump-fakes with synths and hip-hop beats that get displaced by acoustic guitars and live drums when the hook lands. The psychedelic-soul grooves of “Good Wife” suggest that collaborating with the Flaming Lips on last year’s trippy “God and the Policeman” left an impact; “Easier Said” sounds like an attempt to nail the washed-out trip-hop of Frank Ocean’s “Nikes.” She can do straightforward pop; the snarling “Breadwinner” is a perfect balance of catchy hooks and spiteful lyrics that sneaks in just enough acoustic instruments to fly on country radio and achieves the same kind of shockingly bubbly airing of grievances the Chicks excelled at on 2020’s Gaslighter. Folk songs like “Angel” and “Hookup Scene” strip away layers as Kacey proves her pen is just as devastating without grand production flourishes as with.

star-crossed’s confident expedition across genres is only half the story. It’s a divorce album. Musgraves split last year with singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly, her husband of three years, and star-crossed charts a trajectory from marital bliss to breaking up and bouncing back. It’s not your average divorce album in that it is less interested in pointing fingers and more anxious to talk listeners through their own experiences with heartbreak. The writing is both personal and selflessly motivational, even-handed (with the notable exceptions of “Justified” and “Breadwinner”) in its attribution of blame for the way things turned out and full of advice on girding yourself through a rough patch. In “Hookup Scene,” she’s advising against making brash moves when romance stalls: “If you’ve got someone to love / And you’ve almost given up / Hold on tight despite the way they make you mad / ’Cause you might not even know that you don’t have it so bad.” “Cherry Blossom” is the adorable meet-cute: “Early April, you walked up to me / Changing colors on city streets / Petals surrounding us in every shade of pink / We happened quickly, as humans do.” “Camera Roll” speaks somberly to the disorienting sensation of seeing time flow backwards as you scroll through the pictures in your smartphone: “Don’t go through your camera roll / So much you don’t know / That you forgotten / What a trip, the way you can flip / Through all the good parts of it / I shouldn’t have done it.”

The lines here don’t feel as mulled over and deliberate as songs like “Slow Burn” and “Biscuits,” cuts that want you to know these are razor-sharp songwriters at work. star-crossed attempts a more conversational poetry. This is arguably the quality that makes the new album feel the most removed from Kacey’s earlier music, which almost certainly owes at least some of its respect for country songwriting convention to the involvement of Nashville heavy hitters Shane McAnally and Luke Laird. Golden Hour introduced the team of Ian Fitchuk (who played on Sam Hunt’s pop-country classic Montevallo) and Daniel Tashian to Kacey’s work but tapped Laird, McAnally, and the Highwomen’s Natalie Hemby (whose lengthy list of co-writing credits includes at least a dozen Miranda Lambert classics and Pageant Material and Golden Hour gems like “Boys Club” and “Velvet Elvis”) to help steer songs like “Butterflies,” “Space Cowboy,” and “Rainbow.” star-crossed is the first Kacey album that doesn’t call on any of the writers and producers who assisted with her biggest country-chart hits. That choice seems to have given her the freedom to center her thoughts and emotions without reaching for the witty turns of phrase that made “Follow Your Arrow” and “Merry Go ’Round” pop on country radio to the extent that they did. But this doesn’t make star-crossed any less of a conversation about the value (or the lack thereof) in honoring American traditions than its predecessors.

The institution of marriage comes under scrutiny here, at least in the Paramount+ film component, directed by photographer and videographer Bardia Zeinali, starring Kacey, RuPaul’s Drag Race season-13 winner Symone, New York rapper Princess Nokia, comic Meg Stalter, and Schitt’s Creek and Best in Show actor Eugene Levy. The star-crossed film is a fever dream of heists, parties, chase sequences, car crashes, and hospital trips. The core theme is recovery, but the film is also laid out like an acid trip, full of arresting images, slow zooms on liminal spaces, and colorful lights. Kacey and her squad pull a robbery on a wedding-dress shop, leaving the bride-to-be and her Champagne-guzzling mom in tears. Later, as “Good Wife” plays, we’re transported to an auditorium where women in identical white suits and blond wigs are trained to iron clothes and set tables, moving robotically, like Stepford Wives. The film also takes liberties with the music — screwing, stripping, and deconstructing the songs in ways that suggest that a full dub version or Chopstars remix might be a blast — and teases out star-crossed’s structured narrative as our bride comes apart at the seams and gets reassembled in surgery, coming out stronger, literally wearing body armor (but unfortunately carrying no sword). It’s not quite a sequence of music videos, like Beyoncé’s self-titled and Lemonade films. Some songs get more play time than others, deservedly so in the case of the drag disco party set to “There Is a Light.” But the stressful drive in the “Justified” section and the smash-and-grab “Simple Times” clip (where a wedding-cake topper is sliced in half with a large scimitar, and Symone wrecks a display case with a spiked mace) break out nicely as stand-alone visuals.

The takeaways aren’t just “Marriage sucks” or “Fuck my ex,” although star-crossed does stop over in both thought processes in its journey. Kacey doesn’t regret falling in love; she reminisces on the good days as heartily as she stews over the bad ones. You go out on a limb, and you risk a fall. You fall, and you dust yourself off and aim for a better landing if it happens again. The point is to keep trying. Though star-crossed is dressed in new sounds and pondering different subject matter, bookending the comfort in cohabitation voiced in songs like Pageant Material’s “Late to the Party” and “Die Fun” with an honest discussion on what happens when love fails, a knack for a brisk roots-rock shuffle is still the engine driving Kacey Musgraves’s career. And her core talking points haven’t changed all that much since Same Trailer Different Park: Question tradition. Do drugs. Love yourself. Survive.

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Kacey Musgraves Further Divorces Expectation on star-crossed