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‘Star-Crossed’ by Kacey Musgraves Review: A Marriage Story Gets the Intergalactic Treatment


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A new album takes an out-of-this-world approach to the tale of the singer’s path to divorce.

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Kacey Musgraves performing at the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday

Photo: John Shearer/Getty Images for MTV/ViacomCBS

Aspects of Kacey Musgraves’s career align her closely with country-music tradition—she grew up in a tiny town in Texas, performed in yodeling competitions as a young girl, and later worked as a contract songwriter in Nashville before becoming an artist herself—but she’s always defied narrow definitions. In one early song she fantasized about smoking weed with John Prine. And “Follow Your Arrow,” from her 2013 debut “Same Trailer Different Park,” was an ode to LGBT acceptance. By the time of her 2018 LP “Golden Hour” she inhabited a genre all her own, with songs that confidently moved among psych-inflected folk-pop, dreamy dance music and country proper. The latter album was a critical smash, and she won four Grammys including Album of the Year—the more she strayed from country’s center, the more success she found. 

The warm and bright “Golden Hour” was partly inspired by Ms. Musgraves’s then-new relationship with singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly, whom she married in 2017. The subsequent dissolution of their marriage—the couple divorced last year—serves as fodder for Ms. Musgraves’s fifth album, “Star-Crossed” (MCA Nashville/Interscope), out now. Structured as a three-act narrative that moves from the flutter of new love through pain and heartbreak and then to acceptance, it finds Ms. Musgraves once again in her own stylistic orbit, this time with elements of traditional country almost entirely stripped away. Teaming again with writer-producers Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, who worked with Ms. Musgraves on “Golden Hour,” she’s crafted a deeply atmospheric album of cosmic pop. 

Starting with the stunning title track, which serves as a kind of overture, “Star-Crossed” is a sonic experience first—the lyrics are broad while the musical and arrangement choices are detailed and specific. The song begins with mariachi-style guitar flourishes, as if it’s setting up a western, and then as the synths fold in it takes off like a rocket in slow motion, casting doomed romance in galactic terms, as if love were as mysterious as the origins of the universe. 

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The production and arrangements bring to mind eras when adventurous instrumentation fused with pop and rock. Electronic rock of the late 1990s—think Radiohead or the Flaming Lips—is one obvious reference point, and the third track, “Cherry Blossom,” has the sparkly effervescence of Fleetwood Mac circa 1987’s “Tango in the Night.” The gorgeous “If This Was a Movie...,” meanwhile, recalls the lounge-friendly trip-hop of the French duo Air—we could retitle it “Kacey Watch the Stars” to play on that group’s 1998 single about a character named Kelly. 

In one sense, the interstellar production flourishes and Ms. Musgraves’s steady, uninflected delivery are an odd choice for an album about a subject as emotionally wrenching as divorce. The feelings as presented aren’t particularly raw—there are no scenes of shouting matches or dishes being smashed against walls, and there’s not much humor, either, which has previously been a cornerstone of her writing. Instead, “Star-Crossed” is an album that looks back on torment from a place of relative calm, and it communicates feelings in a more subliminal manner, speaking the language of mood and vibe. 

The album’s middle section tells the “what went wrong” portion of her tale. “Breadwinner,” about feeling like your partner isn’t pulling his weight, begins with a synth line mirrored on guitar, and when the drums kick in it become funky and danceable—a low-key sequel to the club-ready house groove “High Horse” from “Golden Hour.” “Camera Roll” is one of a few songs during this stretch that convey the gravity of the breakup with a spare and intimate arrangement. It also has some of the cleverest lyrics on the record, as the singer looks at her smartphone and agonizes over the memories it contains. “Chronological order ain’t nothing but torture,” she sings. “Scroll too far back, that’s what you get.” 

Here and there, Ms. Musgraves’s words land on a cliché and go no further, which is the album’s major sticking point. On the shuffling ballad “Keep Lookin’ Up,” she notes her father told her to “Keep your head in the clouds / And your feet on the ground.” On “There Is a Light,” she sings of “a light at the end of the tunnel” and you wait for a sly twist on the maxim that never arrives. But while the lyrics on the latter fall short, it still communicates musically. The radiant acoustic guitar strumming, accompanied by a rhythm built around hand percussion, cycles through a circular chord progression that invites jamming. And then a playful flute solo delivers on that suggestion and one imagines the track being stretched for 10 minutes or more onstage. 

Ms. Musgraves says she confronted the pain of her breakup by embarking on psychedelic therapy involving guided trips while on psilocybin mushrooms, and it’s easy to hear the connection between the richly textured sonics and expanded consciousness. During one such session, she heard Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa’s version of “Gracias a la Vida,” written by Chilean songwriter and folklorist Violeta Parra, and she closes “Star-Crossed” with her own cover. A translation of the lyrics from Spanish reveals it to be a song of gratitude with images of the heavens interspersed with the mundane, giving thanks for “crickets and canaries, hammers, turbines.” It reaches a level of poetry that Ms. Musgraves never manages herself on this outing. And the recording, processed with crackle and a pinched midrange to sound ancient, makes for a fitting conclusion to an album about transitions, where one floats through time and space in search of happiness.

 

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