Album Review: Kacey Musgraves, star-crossed

Kacey Musgraves

star-crossed

Where is a reformed cynic to go when their worst suspicions about love are realized?

The basic thesis of Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves’ award-sweeping album, was that transformative love really does exist, and it can find its way into the most distrusting and disbelieving heart.  Much of the beauty of that project came from the revelation of true love being experienced first hand by an artist that had been deeply suspicious of such a thing in her earlier work.

But star-crossed, the album written in the wake of that true love breaking apart and ending in divorce, isn’t the younger, wiser Musgraves showing up to take a victory lap.  She’s still been changed by the experience, but it’s left her chastened and humbled.

The end result is a moody, meandering album that pulls its punches, and finds its strongest moments when it’s expressing hurt and confusion.   Put aside the visual album and the meaningless three act framework.  Musgraves doesn’t deliver a concept album, despite the opening track setting one up.  star-crossed is best enjoyed as a loosely themed collection of tracks that explore various stages of love, alongside a handful of autobiographical songs that aren’t related to the central theme at all.

“Good Wife” comes along early, and it’s easily the strongest composition on the album.  It’s the kind of song that Tammy Wynette would’ve written if she was starting out today, fully aware of the imbalance of power between the genders in any given marriage, but doing her best to make it work within those restrictions.

Help me let go of all the things that make me mad
At the end of the day, he’s gotta know that I got his back
And if he comes home stressed out, I could pack him a bowl
Just let him be himself, don’t try to control

God, help me be a good wife
‘Cause he needs me
Even when he’s not right
Yeah, he still needs me

And the truth is
I could probably make it on my own
But without him, this house just wouldn’t be a home
And I don’t wanna be alone

Musgraves later revisits these same feelings after deciding she would make it on her own, on the poignant “Hookup Scene”:

If you’ve got someone to love
And you’ve almost given up
Hold on tight
Despite the way they make you mad
‘Cause you might not even know that you don’t have it so bad

These two songs work particularly well within the album’s production, which is more of the same genre-less sonic template that cries out for more instrumentation or stronger singing.  Musgraves should’ve opted for the former, as she can’t do much about the latter.  So the album’s clumsy attempts at bitterness (“Breadwinner”) and gritty determination (“What Doesn’t Kill Me”) fall completely flat.  “What doesn’t kill me, better run,” is a fantastic lyric, but she sounds like she’s singing it from bed after sleeping in ’till noon.

Ultimately, my enjoyment of star-crossed is hampered by its presentation.  Much like Alan Jackson’s album earlier this year, it’s too long and kind of boring, despite being a much-anticipated work by an artist with clearly proven bona fides.   The writing isn’t as refined as you’d expect from Musgraves, and the arrangements leave her songs with nowhere to hide.

star-crossed is a divorce album without meaningful stakes or a clearly defined villain – Gaslighter, this is not.  So it works best when aiming lower, realizing that adulthood kinda sucks (“Simpler Times”) and wrestling with deleting old photos from a phone (“Camera Roll.”)

I’m hopeful that this is a temporary resting point before Kacey gets her groove back.

5 Comments

  1. I have to admit that I’ve not been a fan of her sonic direction for both this album and Golden Hour. They’re just not my taste, even if they are critically acclaimed.

  2. When Kacey Musgraves first came out with Same Trailer I thought it was a masterpiece. I eagerly anticipated her follow-up album and although I liked it, I felt it was a slightly poppier re-tread of the same themes and concepts. It felt more like a sequel that tried to strike lightning with the same material twice.

    I feel similar things with this album. I was once again blown away by Kacey Musgraves when she released “Golden Hour.” Although the theme is “divorce” instead of “honeymoon-period”, I feel like musically it is a slightly poppier retread. I agree it would have worked better as a full-fledged pop album, or with more traditional country or rock instrumentation.

    I feel disappointed by the album in the same way as I was with Pageant Material, but I will enjoy it for what it is and be ready to be blown away by her next release.

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