Kacey Musgraves Chronicles Her Divorce on ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’
Since her 2013 debut, “Same Trailer, Different Park,” Kacey Musgraves has claimed a niche all of her own within country music, striking a delicate balance between authenticity and accessibility. In spite of a vocal opposition to the restrictive dictates of country radio, she has won six grammy awards and collaborated with the likes of Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, while increasingly embracing pop sensibilities and achieving wide crossover appeal. Musgraves’ critically acclaimed last album, 2018’s “Golden Hour,” was a glowing, genre-hopping extravaganza born from a thriving romantic relationship. Her followup, “Star-Crossed Lovers,” comes in the aftermath of a divorce and finds her stripping back much of the filigree for a more direct and somber exploration. While there is hardly a more hackneyed subject in country music than heartbreak, Musgraves’ take on it is strikingly original. Inspired by a guided psychedelic mushroom trip, with a soundtrack curated by neuroscientists studying the effects of psilocybin and music on the brain, she has embarked on an emotional excursion of epic proportions.
The cinematic, eponymous opener begins the album from its narrative climax, as Musgraves sings, “Let me set the scene / Two lovers ripped right at the seams” with a composed resignation. Spaghetti Western guitars build to a surge of beaming choirs, full of tragic promise. From this point on, the album darts about the peaks and troughs that preceded, coloring the shades of ambivalence that came at different moments along the way. “Good Wife” clears the clutter and skips back to a more hopeful time. Musgraves repeats, “God, help me be a good wife,” sounding affectionate but measured, and at one point admitting, “The truth is I could probably make it on my own,” while the music plods along as if slightly forced into maintaining an upbeat tune. The fragility of the relationship at hand bares itself further on “Cherry Blossom,” a deceptively saccharine song with a sweet singalong and a cheery breeziness that warrants the warning, “Don’t let me blow away.” There is a vaguely adolescent quality to how Musgraves often casually runs through her melodies without rounding off the ends, and this makes her especially well-suited for a nostalgic song like “Simpler Times.” She captures the relatively carefree spirit of a bygone phase in an upbeat ditty with fetching vocal harmonies and a melodic refrain that bears a considerable resemblance to a solo guitar passage from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Scar Tissue.”
Things take a decidedly darker turn on “If This Was a Movie.” The full lyric from which the title is clipped is “If this was a movie / Love would be enough.” The production places Musgraves in the foreground over a somewhat distant backing track, her singing and the clean guitar strumming cloaked in reverb, but not as much as the surrounding instrumentation, as if to acknowledge a growing rift. Disillusionment gives way to a self-righteous swagger on the readymade single “Justified,” which places Musgraves atop a swaying, momentous beat, reflecting, “Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line,” and building to the climactic assertion, “I’m more than justified,” which she delivers with punchy pop precision. A lull follows in “Angel,” which revisits the strained optimism of “Good Wife” from an increasingly jaded perspective, modifying the premise of “If This Was a Movie” to “If I were an Angel.” Musgraves’ stark vocal hints at pillow talk intimacy, while misty atmospherics reach for a distant dream.
By the point of “Breadwinner,” Musgraves has considerably changed her tune. No longer pleading, “God, help me be a good wife,” she now insists, “But all of his wounds ain’t an excuse,” and reiterates the message of “Justified,” asserting, “the fault isn’t mine.” The track is fittingly impactful, an infectious banger with a propulsive rhythm that recalls the vibrant fusion that made “Golden Hour” such a lively listen. The more tender “Camera Roll” follows, on which Musgraves takes on a weary, melancholic tone as she reflects with frustration upon the skewed chronicle of a relationship left by photographs of only the best moments. It would be one thing “if this was a movie,” but she has already taken care to establish that it isn’t. The despondency continues through “Easier Said,” on which a slightly distorted guitar sputter sparks a cathartic chorus upon the admission “It ain’t easy to love someone.” The scrambled sequencing of conflicting emotions that make their way into the tracklist effectively recreates the push and pull of a romantic split. On “Hookup Scene,” Musgraves protests the emptiness of casual encounters. She again echoes “Good Wife,” now after the dissolution of the relationship, wistfully advising, “Hold on tight despite the way they make you mad,” in a melody that resolves neatly even though the story behind it has taken another course.
There remains some idealism yet, as Musgraves proves on “Keep Looking Up,” moving to an insistent kick and clap, with a tune and delivery that match the sentiment at hand. This builds neatly up to another banger, “What Doesn’t Kill Me.” At once irresistibly catchy and decisively dark, the track finds Musgraves singing of her “golden hour faded black,” and warning, “What doesn’t kill me / Better run” with a sweetness that renders the sentiment especially venomous. Next, “There is a Light” brings it all over the top in a festive riot of pan flutes and hand drums that celebrate the titular revelation in its full grandeur.
Having begun the album in the climactic moment of tragedy, then flashed back erratically to highs and lows that came before, Musgraves effectively recreates the jagged formations in which memories and the emotions they conjure present themselves in the aftermath of a divorce. In the end, one is left with the pain and pleasure that rely on one another to orchestrate all of life’s marvels and mystery. And Musgraves acknowledges it all in the most extravagant manner with her standout closing track, “Gracias a La Vida.” Written in 1966 by Chilean songwriter and activist Violetta Parra, the song made its way into Musgraves’ psychedelic playlist via a rendition by Mercedes Sosa. An ode to life as a whole, its beauty and its suffering, the song is reworked as the grand finale of the album. What begins as a muffled vintage recording shifts to higher fidelity, and is further refined repeatedly until beaming in full vocoder treatment, drawing the affair to a triumphant end. If songs on “Star-Crossed Lovers” generally lack the hyperactive excitement and madcap genre-splicing that characterized “Golden Hour,” the finale alone demonstrates that Musgraves is as musically adventurous as ever. This time around, the moves are more measured, but the overall statement is unprecedentedly bold, making for Musgraves’ most directly personal and thematically ambitious album yet.
“Star-Crossed” releases Sept. 10 on Apple Music.