Kacey Musgraves has a story to tell. It’s a sad story, it’s a true story, and it’s her story. After filling Golden Hour, her roundly acclaimed 2018 release that won her the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, with tales of romantic content, the relationship that sparked that lovey-dovey songwriting collapsed. Musgraves divorced fellow singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly in 2020, after close to four years of marriage. As might be expected, she processes that pain on Star-Crossed, her new album. If the preceding album offered a treatise on love, the new record flips to play a very different tune.
The difference is in the sentiments of the lyrics, not in the music in the grooves. On Golden Hour, Musgraves occasionally sauntered down a side road leading away from the territory of country music where she made her name. Star-Crossed travels that smoothly paved lane almost exclusively. The album opens with the title cut, offering a tender overture: orchestral music, a gently plunking guitar, and Musgraves singing, “Let me set the scene/ Two lovers ripped right at the seams/ They woke up from the perfect dream/ And then the darkness came.” It’s like she’s pitching the opening number for a cynical, heartbreak-laden sequel to Moulin Rouge!
The gentle lilt of Musgraves’s Texas accent is about the only twang to be found on the album. “Simple Times” opens with a Grimes-like gurgle of electronic tinkering before it shifts to lithe, aching pop that nostalgically longs for the comparatively carefree days of her millennial youth (“There’s nothing really going on/ But I heard about a rager/ I won’t be waiting by the phone/ So you can hit me on the pager”), and “Good Wife” spills its conflicting emotions about providing spousal support to a needy partner (“And the truth is/ I could probably make it on my own/ But without him, this house just wouldn’t be a home”) with a touch of Beyoncé neo-soul. The steady, one-day-at-a-time tempo of “Keep Looking Up” is a reflection of the song’s lyrics of determined perseverance (“But I keep looking up/ Won’t let the world bring me down/ Keep your head in the clouds/ And your feet on the ground”). Enhancing the sense of wounded honesty on the album, Musgraves regularly strays from well-worn imagery to offer a more current depiction of heartache, as with “Camera Roll,” which updates pining over old pictures to the smartphone version of the experience (“Chronological order and nothing but torture/ Scroll back too far and that’s what you get”).
Although there’s little doubt Musgraves wrote from misery, Star-Crossed is more of a melancholy endeavor. It never really rises to the blistering anger of the Chicks’ recent breakup record or the seething discontent of U2’s Achtung Baby or Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, arguably the twin peaks of music stars attempting to heal their broken hearts through rhythm and melody. “Breadwinner” is about as rough as it gets, and even that is a pulled punch: “I can sleep at night/ Knowing I really tried/ I put in the time/ But the fault isn’t mine.” That’s an observation, not a criticism. Musgraves is a uniquely gifted songwriter, and the overwhelming impression of Star-Crossed is that it represents her being remarkably candid and true to herself. It’s her version of getting through, and rueful roaming is as good a way to do it as any. On the catchy, perfectly crafted single “Justified,” she sings the map she’s going to follow, acknowledging for all to hear that “Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line.”