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.