Music

The joyousness of Kacey Musgraves’ previous album entranced even hardened cynics, but her latest work, Star-Crossed, takes us back to the dark. By Shaad D’Souza.

Kacey Musgraves’ Star-Crossed

Texan country star Kacey Musgraves.
Credit: Adrienne Raquel

For a moment there, the best possible descriptor of Texan country star Kacey Musgraves was right there in her Instagram handle: spaceykacey. How else would you describe the dewy-eyed ingenue who greeted you with open arms on 2018’s Golden Hour?

Here was a troubadour in glitter eyeshadow who loved to light up a joint and marvel at the way the smoke coiled just so; she implored you to place half a tab under your tongue and taste the impossible sweetness of a pink sunset. She saw new love as butterflies and new hope as rainbows, and could persuade you in a breath that there was nothing clichéd about those images, no matter how many times you’d seen them conjured before. Love was everywhere, impossible not to find in the world around you, “running like a river trying to find the ocean”. There have been few metaphors as simple but as gut-wrenchingly perfect as that one, so plainly truthful in its evocation. Golden Hour was a sensation, an album that was felt deeply by many people, even the most avowed cynics in my life.

Perhaps it worked because before she took that tab and put on that glitter, Musgraves herself was one of mainstream country’s most prominent cynics. Her first two albums, 2013’s Same Trailer Different Park and 2015’s Pageant Material, had a jolly disposition but saw the world with an unflinching, perennially disappointed eye. Like The Chicks’ Natalie Maines before her, Musgraves loved the country tradition but found nothing to love in the culture it had created.

Songs such as “Pageant Material” and “Follow Your Arrow” – which ruffled feathers because of its decidedly benign chorus of “Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls / If that’s something you’re into” – expressed a deep discomfort with the conservatism endemic to the genre’s modern form. Golden Hour, then, was the sound of a nonbeliever who suddenly saw just how much beauty and joy there was to find in the world; released into an unrelentingly dark political climate, it was one of the few albums that genuinely felt, and still feels, like a salve. It found a mainstream audience, too, netting Musgraves a surprise Album of the Year win at the Grammys. It’s hard to resist a record that tells you “there’s always been a rainbow hangin’ over your head” in such persuasively vivid tones.

It truly hurts my heart, then, to say that Star-Crossed, Musgraves’ follow-up to Golden Hour, sees spaceykacey planting her feet firmly back on solid ground. Chronicling her painful divorce from songwriter Ruston Kelly – who conjured butterflies that first time around – Star-Crossed is a beautiful but heart-shatteringly sad record: the sound of a cynic-turned-believer seeing the clouds darken above, no light in sight. This is Musgraves on a Here, My Dear tip, wallowing in the depths of her divorce and using the richness of music itself as a balm. Eschewing the naturalistic tones of its predecessor, Star-Crossed is a fantasy of studio magic, of locked-in grooves and hermetically sealed arrangements, evoking the lushest possible tones as some kind of respite from the harshness of what lies outside the studio doors.

I say “studio” because this is a Studio Album, evoking artists known for their production wizardry. It’s a truly gorgeous listen, the Musgraves album I want to just put on and sink into, to best hear the shine and finery of its arrangements. “Good Wife” and “If This Was a Movie” float atop beautifully chintzy mutating synth lines whose atmosphere and fullness recalls the classic, cinematic French band Air; “Keep Lookin’ Up”, to my ears, is a nod to the maligned but sneakily epic band America, specifically their hit “A Horse With No Name”, with its world-weary strut.

“There Is a Light”, a grandiose moment of rare hope towards the record’s end, breaks into a gleeful jazz flute solo, and the song’s hook and tone seems to reference Todd Rundgren’s ebullient and goofy “I Saw The Light”. If there is a knock to be made against Star-Crossed, it’s that these references seem made for music nerds, with little of the openness of its predecessor. It’s not exactly an AirPods album – rather than exclaiming “Wow!” at all the spectral beauty, you’re much more likely to go “Ha!” at the cheek of drawing from such a strange and specific palette. These references were tempered on Golden Hour, but always present; here, Musgraves dives in headfirst, to wonderful effect, aided by studio magicians Shawn Everett and BJ Burton.

There’s so much to find in Star-Crossed, but doing so requires one to let go of the exploratory fantasies of Golden Hour. These songs don’t sweep and unfold in the same way; they look backward, not forward, and feel more dioramic in scope, like perfectly rendered models of that record’s grand vistas. Star-Crossed’s “Good Wife”, the first song after a portentous introductory track, steps in a tight groove, with no chance of any Hail Marys or left turns. The elements of Golden Hour are reconfigured to suit Musgraves’ emotional state. Singing about the drudgery of married life, the vocoder that demarcated wondrous possibility on Golden Hour here reflects a Stepford-ish neutrality. Acoustic guitar strums without faltering, the same sound and the same scene on loop. “God help me be a good wife / ’Cause he needs me / Even when he’s not right / He still needs me,” she sings, age-old strictures of marriage rendered as relentless 4/4. “Justified”, a road song whose ingratiating chug seems to channel the emotional hand-wringing of Musgraves’ lyrics, is similar. Let yourself settle into these grooves and dazzling flourishes reveal themselves: the echo of a pedal steel guitar like the ghost of a past life, strings that once invoked discovery pushing here a kind of Disneyfied staidness.

Marriage is a thorny topic, as is to be expected, and in the album’s darkest moments Musgraves deals devastating blows. The man who was once “stealin’ my heart instead of stealin’ my crown” is now piggybacking on her success. “Breadwinner”, a callous highlight, offers a cheeky inversion on the typical “gold-digger” trope: “He wants a breadwinner / he wants your dinner / until he ain’t hungry anymore / He wants your shimmer / to make him feel bigger / Until he starts feeling insecure.” Aping the gently plucked strings that signalled marital contentment on Ariana Grande’s positions (and inverting their function), “Breadwinner” is a gut-punch left turn from the bliss of Golden Hour: “I wish somebody had told me the truth / Said ‘He’s never gonna know what to do with a woman like you’.”

Star-Crossed closes with a moment of scarred optimism. A cover of Chilean artist Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a la Vida”, another studio-whiz moment that’s patinaed with studio haze and tape crackle. “Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto / Me ha dado la risa y me ha dado el llanto,” Musgraves sings, “Así yo distingo dicha de quebranto / Los dos materiales que forman mi canto.”

Thanks to life, she is saying, for providing the joy and pain that inspires my music. Accompanied only by guitar, her voice shrouded in intense, metallic vocoder that recalls the Catalonian experimentalist Rosalía, it’s a new Musgraves. Not a space cadet or a cynic, but a woman beaten down by life and finally getting back up, ready to accept brightness once more – as well as all the dark that comes with it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 11, 2021 as "Shattered heart".

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Shaad D’Souza is The Saturday Paper’s music critic.