Kacey Musgraves star-crossed a "Flawed Tragedy in 3 Acts"
Kacey Musgrave’s 2018 album Golden Hour saw Musgraves at an artistic, commercial, and personal peak. Inspired by the love she felt within her marriage to Ruston Kelly, Golden Hour netted Musgraves a Grammy for Album of the Year and Platinum certification.
Well, to quote Kacey herself, that “golden hour faded black.” Musgraves and Kelly divorced in July 2020, resulting in her newest release, star-crossed. As a divorce album, how does star-crossed hold up to Musgraves’ venerable marriage album?
star-crossed doesn’t quite stick the landing like Golden Hour, due equal in part to a loftier concept and less exciting songwriting. That said, star-crossed offers new sounds from Musgraves, some of her best individual musicality, and takes impressive risks.
Unlike her previous works, Musgraves designed star-crossed as a concept album. She describes the album as a “modern tragedy in three acts” (although the accuracy of that claim is disputable). star-crossed follows a purposeful dramatic structure. While it makes the album stick out from others in her discography, it also causes an uneven flow of quality.
The album’s opening act soars. Titular track and album opener “star-crossed” mimics Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia” with what can only be described as epic, cosmic yodeling. It feels like an overture to a musical and perfectly sets the tone.
The next few songs chronicle the gradual decline of marriage. “good wife” pointedly evokes the spacey acoustic and synth of Golden Hour as Musgraves struggles to be the wife of her husband’s dreams. Musgraves builds her resentment on “simple times” as she desires the simple times before her marriage. Acoustic elements mix with high-hats for an uneasy, intense song of longing.
Overall, the album’s first act is its most exciting and consistent. Despite an eclectic mix of new sounds, Musgraves meshes them together for a cohesive whole.
It is the second act of star-crossed that derails the album. The album’s middle finds Musgraves reflecting on her relationship from the outside, whether with anger, regret, or general sadness. Sadly, it fails to bring much new to any of these themes.
Songs like “camera roll,” “easier said,” and “hookup scene” relate to near-universal break-up experiences, such as looking through old pictures or trying to get back in the dating scene. The problem is that the songs feel too universal; you could tell me pretty much any other artist wrote them, and I’d believe you. They feel like something you’d hear at a local open mic rather than from a songwriter of Musgraves’ caliber.
Stale instrumentation accompanies these generic lyrics. Musgraves gives a lot of guitar, a lot of synth, and a lot of piano, which is also true of Golden Hour. The problem here is that they fail to combine in new and exciting ways. It feels like a step back from not only Golden Hour but the album’s opening.
Perhaps the stripped-back nature is a purposeful look at Musgraves’ vulnerable state; if so, the melodies and lyrics don’t do enough to make up for it.
The album closes with a string of solid closers to round out the story. “keep lookin’ up” remains firmly in Musgraves’ spacey, acoustic bag, but brings more interesting acoustic picking and lovely harmonies. “there is a light” experiments with jazz flute and dance drums for a triumphant acceptance of life after love. Finally, “gracias a la vida” applies distortive effects to a Chilean classic for a bittersweet farewell to this chapter in Musgraves’ life.
Again, Musgraves takes new risks here that bring her music into new dimensions. It’s strange, then, that it feels like Musgraves only decided to take such risks to bookend her album rather than maintain them all the way through.
star-crossed is no Golden Hour; considering its subject matter, it’d be weird if it was. While it may disappoint if Golden Hour brought you to her music, star-crossed is still worth your time to see Musgraves take new risks and extend her musical horizons. Even if you skip the middle on repeat listens.
Kacey Musgraves star-crossed Album Review Track-by-Track
Track 1: "star-crossed"Length: 3:19
From the review: Titular track and album opener "star-crossed" mimics Muse's "Knights of Cydonia" with what can only be described as epic, cosmic yodeling. It feels like an overture to a musical and perfectly sets the tone.
Track 2: "good wife"Length: 3:51
From the review: "'good wife' pointedly evokes the spacey acoustic and synth of Golden Hour as Musgraves struggles to be the wife of her husband's dreams." Shoutout to the vocal performance on this track, too. Great range and impressive flexibility over a fast pace.
Track 3: "cherry blossom"Length: 3:04
Musgraves utilizes Eastern sounds for this track about changes within a relationship over time. I love the "cherry blossom" metaphor here; beautiful yet fleeting. I'm skeptical about the authenticity of the Eastern instrumentalization, but it's groovy to the untrained ear.
Track 4: "simple times"Length: 2:47
From the review: "Musgraves builds her resentment on "simple times" as she desires the simple times before her marriage. Acoustic elements mix with high-hats for an uneasy, intense song of longing." One of the album's biggest "bangers."
Track 5: "if this was a movie..."Length: 3:14
"if this was a movie…" is similar to songs like "camera roll" in its contemporary look at modern-day breakups but utilizes those themes to greater effect. The moment of breakup, "movie…" is a genuine reaction to unexpected but inevitable news. A varied instrumental mix and melancholy lyrics create a tender, somber atmosphere.
Track 6: "justified"Length: 3:00
"justified" is a lovely bit of outlaw pop-country. Acoustic and electric guitars create a soundscape that blends the aggressive and sensitive, mimicking the song's indecisive lyrics. A fun chorus and excellent specificity ("I'm more than just a little justified / to touch somebody / you know I tried / to make that you") make this a standout singalong track.
Track 7: "angel"Length: 2:19
A gorgeous vocal track doesn't save "angel" from the rough middle act of Star-Crossed. "angel" doesn't develop enough over its two minutes to make it a truly compelling track; her lyrics of "I never have to change" feel a little too apt here. Still, Musgraves sounds lovely.
Track 8: "breadwinner"Length: 3:20
"breadwinner" is a fun roast of Ruston Kelly but could be so much nastier. Musgraves again stalls instrumentally here, never developing past the intro's vibey pluck melody. A more exciting arrangement could make this song an absolute killer. For now, it's wasted potential.
Track 9: "camera roll"Length: 2:39
"camera roll" is flat-out hokey. The song says almost nothing in its 2:39 runtime beyond "I have pictures of my ex on my phone that make me sad." Yeah, it's relatable, but that's about it.
Track 10: "easier said"Length: 3:07
Although lyrically uninteresting, "easier said" provides some classic "spacey Kacey" vibes. It feels like a Golden Hour outtake, which is more than can be said with some other middle album cuts.
Track 11: "hookup scene"Length: 3:21
"hookup scene" is a pleasing, albeit basic, song about how the grass isn't always greener on the other side. Gentle acoustic guitar and vocals make it an easy listen, even if it fails to say much past its initial chorus.
Track 12: "keep lookin' up"Length: 2:46
From the review:" 'keep lookin' up remains firmly in Musgraves' spacy, acoustic bag, but brings more interesting acoustic picking and lovely harmonies."
Track 13: "what doesn't kill me"Length: 2:17
Opening with Bon Iver-esque vocal, "what doesn't kill me" steadily builds as Kacey repeats the song's titular mantra and starts to believe it. A clever transition into the confidence of "there is a light" and a better narrative arc than nearly any song in the album's middle.
Track 14: "there is a light"Length: 3:51
From the review: "'there is a light' experiments with jazz flute and dance drums for a triumphant acceptance of life after love." This song makes you want to disco with the girls. Enough said.
Track 15: "gracias a la vida"Length: 4:32
From the review: "'gracias a la vida; applies distortive effects to a Chilean classic for a bittersweet farewell to this chapter in Musgraves' life." A risky payoff to a reserved album.