Devastatingly beautiful when it gets it right
Philip Giouras
16:34 10th September 2021

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Kacey Musgraves has always been a star. Her debut album Same Trailer Different Park saw her take the country music scene by storm. She’s also never been one to conform: on the same record she sang candidly and positively about same-sex relationships and smoking weed, despite the risk it posed to her image and career at the time.

Distinctively a country artist, she reached a turning point with 2018’s Golden Hour which saw her pivot to a blend of country and pop. It was a huge commercial and critical success in which she also scooped up the coveted Album of the Year award at the Country Music Association Awards. The record saw her break into the mainstream, and finally achieve the recognition she deserved, as well as raise her profile in both the UK and Europe. Full of emotion and hope, the record centred around the joyous honeymoon period of her marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly. It included bright fluorescent tracks like the disco-infused dancefloor smash ‘High Horse’ and the Daft Punk stylings of ‘Oh What A World’.

As her professional life reached new heights though, her personal one began to crumble; divorce soon followed in 2020 and became the inspiration for her new record star-crossed. This backstory is crucial to understand because the record is a deeply personal one that transforms her divorce into a three-act epic concept album. At times to its detriment, Star Crossed assumes you know Musgraves' past before you go jumping in. 

Opener and title track ‘star-crossed’, as Musgraves says in her own words, “sets the scene” in dramatic fashion: Latin guitar strings solemnly twang as Musgraves sings of signing divorce papers and of two lovers ripped at the seams. It’s a contemplative and stripped back introduction that gradually builds into a haunting choral harmony from Musgraves. 

The album's first act centres around the marriage’s early struggles; on the brilliant ‘good wife’, Musgraves struggles with the archetypal housewife role forced upon her. There’s almost a vintage hallucinatory feel to the track, reminiscent of the 1950s style standards she’s referencing. It also contains one of Musgraves' all-time killer lyrical moments which perfectly summarises why so many failed marriages try to stick it out:  “And the truth is, I could probably make it on my own, But without him, this house just wouldn't be a home, And I don't wanna be alone”.

‘cherry blossom’ is an absolute delight. Its oriental-styled instrumental refrain is beautiful and it’s one of the most joyous tracks on the records—an early highlight reminiscent of Phoebe Bridgers' excellent single ‘Kyoto’. Following track ‘simple times’ has a similar East Asian styled catchy synth refrain but is the emotional inverse of its predecessor as Musgraves struggles with a once-simple relationship becoming deeply complicated.

Unfortunately, the track also highlights a prevalent weakness of the record in the way that Musgraves struggles to fully commit her personal experiences to each track. There are momentsin which Musgrave will distance herself lyrically, hiding her killer songwriting behind metaphors and clichés a few too many times. This becomes much more noticeable during the album's struggling middle section. 

‘angel’ and ‘camera roll’ are short, forgetful segments that bookend the much superior, emotional gut-punch of the understated ‘breadwinner’, a track that focuses on and hints that Kelly, with his more modest success, was unable to emotionally mature and deal with the fact Musgraves was the bigger star in the marriage. It's unflinching, and a powerful moment of reclaiming herself. The tempo never shifts on the melancholic ‘easier said’ or the surprisingly titled ‘hookup scene’ which lacks in the passion the name may suggest.

The third and final act sees the album recharged and reinvigorated with fresh ideas. Full of optimism, the clouds have been lifted and replaced with ambiguous yet hopeful spirituality. ‘keep lookin up’ is a delightful self-empowering acoustic ballad, whilst ‘what doesn’t kill me’ opens with a fantastic '90s pop styled riff: “I’ve been to hell and back, Golden hour faded black, Say that it ain't coming back” sings Musgraves on a pre-chorus that rightfully summarises the fact she has refused to conform and make a carbon copy of her hugely successful predecessor record. The track is one of the smartest and most exciting directions star-crossed takes, which is why it’s criminal for it to be so painfully short at only two minutes. ‘there is a light’ concludes the optimistic trio of tracks, featuring an exuberant flute solo that Lizzo would be proud of. 

The definitiveness of 'gracias a la vida' feels like the apt conclusion to a record that has focused on such a painful and progressive phase of Musgraves' life. It’s refreshing to see her refuse to take the easy road and duplicate the sound of Golden Hour. Turning her divorce into an extravagant concept album was a genius idea; it’s just a shame that at times she struggles to truly commit to the idea and fully bare her soul to the listener. When she does though, it’s devastatingly beautiful.

star-crossed is out now.

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Photo: Press