Sunday, September 12, 2021

Review: Star-Crossed • Kacey Musgraves

The divorce record: It’s what the people wanted – nay, demanded – from Kacey Musgraves once the news spread in July 2020. She and fellow country singer Ruston Kelly had split, ending the marriage that inspired the Grammy Award-winning record Golden Hour – a hypnotizing, evergreen depiction of newlywed radiance, even with the power of hindsight. For many, there was an assumption that a new record would be just as impassioned as the marriage record, just oppositely reinforced: Anger and betrayal should light up this record like the Fourth of July. Instead, what we hear is a record incredibly characteristic of Kacey Musgraves. Through Star-Crossed, she processes and accepts the situation for what it is: A couple who, when the stardust settled, just wasn’t meant to coexist in the home they had built together. Whether the fault was his, hers, or most likely, both of theirs, it doesn’t quite matter: It’s life, and it happens. How’s that for a divorce record?

It’s hard not to reference Star-Crossed against Golden Hour: They open and close the same book, from the same artist, with the same producers. This album traces the descent from love-soaked utopia, bookended with denial and bargaining on one end (“I’m your cherry blossom, baby. I don’t wanna blow away,” she sings on “Cherry Blossom,” an ear-catching sonic flare) and acceptance on the other. The album closes with a celebratory flute solo (“There is a Light”) and a cover of a decades-old Chilean song translating to “Thanks to Life,” released by its original writer shortly before she committed suicide in 1967. But beyond their stories’ continuity, the records are starkly different creations. Country becomes only the conversational, sometimes clichéd storytelling foundation here rather than the outward presentation: Star-Crossed coagulates into a soft, pillowy mutation of pop, psychedelia, and country, in which country maintains the recessive genes. 

With its songs tailored slim and songwriting choices tied to a targeted palette, Star-Crossed is much more reliant on a drumbeat than a heartbeat. “Justified,” where spaghetti western instrumentation is skewed into a dance floor outfit, might best represent the artistic vision and mission statement at hand: “Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line,” she sings, among the record’s most gripping statements. The song is fulfilling yet only vaguely familiar of Musgraves’ native country music; the same could be said of “Breadwinner,” a danceable moment of rebellion against her ex, and “Simple Times,” a cleaner cut, much closer cousin to Musgraves’ back catalog. Star-Crossed is, by design, an abrupt break from who Kacey Musgraves once was as an artist. The idealistic visions she curated and upon which she reflects in “Camera Roll” are no more: “Golden Hour faded to black,” indeed. 

Despite its inspiration, Star-Crossed is an easy, encapsulating listen. The songs share the same DNA, creating a starry blanket across the freshly blackened sky. Musgraves’ vocals sink into each song’s plush production work, insulating her stanzas and embedding her voice into the framework. Ultimately, she has created a crash pad to absorb the impact of her imploded relationship. Star-Crossed doesn’t sound like a divorce record, and certainly not a country one, at that. (After all, not one song here threatens her ex’s life or his possessions. No woman scorned here, folks.) The songwriting almost snips the theses out of her stories, saving only the metaphoric musings to swirl around the dilated soundscapes. In turn, Star-Crossed isn’t the transformative exploration of a specific feeling that Golden Hour was. It smooths the sharp lines in a difficult yet life-redefining situation, rendering a record that, yes, can sometimes feel somewhat detached from its core. But perhaps that’s the lesson: Life happens. It’s painful. We cope. We heal. We move on. Sometimes, we're just star-crossed.

Star-Crossed is available now under MCA Nashville and Interscope Records.

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