Kacey Musgraves’s 2018 album Golden Hour, a collection of luminous love songs, has been the stand-out country record of the past few years. Written while in the throes of love with fellow country musician Ruston Kelly, it won Musgraves four Grammys, including Album of the Year, and transformed the Texan songwriter from an alternative artist in the US country scene into an arena-filling pop star, with a global fanbase that adored her blissful recounting of desire. Then, in the summer of 2020, the pair divorced. Musgraves’s world crumbled around her. How could she make a follow-up to such a euphoric record with a broken heart?
Listening to Star-Crossed, Musgraves’s fifth studio album, the answer emerges: unconvincingly. The clear-sightedness of her loved-upmusic has now evaporated. Instead, her new record is laden with clichés and rests too easy on simplistic refrains.
“Let me set the scene/Two lovers ripped right at the seams,” she sings over Spanish guitar in the titular opening track, which serves as an overture. On Star-Crossed, with its Shakespearean connotations, Musgraves imagines her divorce as a tragedy. She structures the record in three parts: the exposition, the climax, and a resolution (though, of course, Romeo and Juliet really has five acts). Her voice is weighted with melancholia across the record, even on moments of temporary hope. This tonal depth is ruined by the overuse of autotune on tracks such as “Good Wife”, which is flattened in postproduction. The song is a bland one anyway – it’s about wanting to do right in marriage, for which Musgraves resorts to lazily traditional gender roles, despite her supposed liberalness – but the vocal treatment tears away any genuine emotional sentiment.
Such sonic choices (the record was coproduced by Musgraves, alongside previous collaborators Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian) diminish the songwriting on “Cherry Blossom” too, turning an unexceptional track into a poor one. “I’m cherry blossom, baby/Don’t let me blow away/I hope you haven’t forgotten/Tokyo wasn’t built in a day,” she sings on the lighthearted electro-pop number. Musgraves has previously proved that country music doesn’t have to be prescriptive – her songs are typically peppered with guitar and banjo, but piano and synths sound at home too. But here she clings to obviousness with a koto – a Japanese stringed instrument – that performs scalic runs throughout the chorus, mirroring lyrics that are themselves inane. The result is twee.
By sixth track “Justified”, a tightly recorded yet easygoing song that is pared back to a straightforward vocal/guitar/drums line-up, it’s apparent that the cracks in Musgraves’s marriage run deep. On the subsequent songs she interrogates the forces that contributed to its demise.
“Camera Roll” is a smart take on the impact of technology on personal experiences of relationships – not the much-talked about aesthetic pressures caused by social media, but the risk of “selective nostalgia”, of only remembering the good times because that’s all you have photos of. “Breadwinner”, which plays with an observational narrative reminiscent of Taylor Swift, though with a jilty pluckiness, describes a man who is initially attracted to a successful, independent woman, and then becomes threatened by her. The lyrics are flighty: “He wants a breadwinner/He wants your dinner/Until he ain’t hungry anymore.”
As Musgraves settles into acceptance, her songs become steadier. “Easier Said”, on which she acknowledges that love is difficult, glistens with a soft-rock late-summer haziness. “What Doesn’t Kill Me” (impossible to listen to without thinking of Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger”, which is far better), nonetheless, has an easy peppiness. An acoustic cover of “Gracias a la Vida”, originally recorded in the 1960s by Chilean musician Violeta Parra, is a mournful, tender closer – until Musgraves’s voice is electrified, layered into distortion by effects that, once again, mangle the song’s beauty.
That her output should take such an about-turn is surprising: typically, it is being in love that blinds songwriters to what’s musically good and what isn’t, and heartbreak that encourages them to become more reflective. In an interview with Crack magazine in August, Musgraves said: “I accomplished everything I could have ever dreamed of with Golden Hour. I felt like I didn’t really have anything to prove.” Star-Crossed, then, is little more than an act of catharsis.