Great art doesn’t necessarily come from great pain, but it is tough to deny that some of the greatest creative outputs do come from the complexities of the greatest sufferings. Kacey Musgraves’ fifth full-length album star-crossed was written in the style of modern Shakespearean tragedy in response to her divorce from singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly, her husband of three years, and it charts a trajectory from the highs of love to the pangs of heartbreak through doubts, vulnerability, and ultimately hope. It’s not a typical divorce album, and the takeaways aren’t simply “Fuck my ex.” Musgraves lays it all out in these songs, letting the words flow with authenticity and raw appeal from the off. And to make her words even clearer, she strips back most of the musical maximalism that shaped some of her previous offerings—standing out as some of the artist’s most balanced, plaintive, and personal music yet.
Star-crossed is a sharp turn for Musgraves. It does continue down its predecessor’s dedication to proceed to toy with the mechanics of Musgraves’ music in both the simplest and trickiest ways, but there’s something newer here. The Kacey Musgraves of star-crossed sounds freer than before. It sounds like an album that she wanted and needed to make for herself for years, regardless of how the public’s perception. While, yes, an acoustic guitar-forward Kacey Musgraves album may sound like a return to country in theory, but it sounds much different in practice: melding in the influences of classical music, alternative rock, contemporary indie-folk, and early 2000s R&B throughout the 15 songs, creating a lush and intricately carved sonic landscape. “cherry blossom” rolls in on an airy synth-pop tune and twists unexpectedly on the oriental-styled instrumental refrain. On finger-snapping mid-tempo track “simple times,” Musgraves toys with synths and hip-hop beats that later get displaced on the hook by acoustic guitars and dwell drums. Lightly orchestrated folk songs like “angel” strip away layers as the singer proves her pen is simply as devastating and wistful without grand manufacturing thrives as with. The psychedelic-soul aspect of “good wife” counsel that last year’s ethereal “God and the Policeman” certainly left an imprint on Musgraves’ artistic vision and creates an ethereal atmosphere that again seeks to defy genre boundaries. The disco-infused “breadwinner” comes wrapped in a frothy, bouncy melody that sneaks in simply sufficient acoustic devices to fly on the national radios. However, star-crossed’s assured expedition throughout genres is barely half the story.
The record is crafted around a tragedy presented in three acts: the exposition, the climax, and the resolution. The concepts covered here are combined and matched in a way where the musical innovation is present but subtle, allowing the sincerity and courage in storytelling take the center stage. The writing is compelling and conversational, but also not as mulled over and deliberate as some of the artist’s earlier works. Musgraves’ emotional mood swings throughout the progression of the record is also worth mentioning. “I’ve been to hell and back / Golden hour faded black,” she sings on simultaneously menacing and uplifting “what doesn’t kill me,” referencing the glory days of her past era, and bares her teeth as she advises her antagonist, warning “You’re going to feel me when I’m done.” While on the penultimate track “there is a light,” Musgraves reflects a positive outlook on what is yet to come before breaking out into a wonderfully bizarre, unexpected whirlwind of flutes. In “hookup scene,” she gives her advice on making brash strikes once romance fades: “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.” While “camera roll” speaks somberly to the melancholic sensation of confronting nostalgia: “Don’t go through your camera roll / So much you don’t know / That you forgotten / What a trip, the way you can flip / Through all the good parts of it / I shouldn’t have done it.” Though the classic one-liners that highlighted the artist’s first two records are few and far between here, Musgraves’ self-awareness remains as she refers to the gimmicky love stories and yearns for a simpler scenario, singing almost with a wink on “if this was a movie” with lyrics that gleam with an addictive sweetness instead of nearly veering into a cliché: “If this was a movie I’d be surprised / Hearing your car coming up the drive / And you’d run up the stairs / You’d hold my face / Say we’re being stupid / And we’d fall back into place.”
While star-crossed boasts many credible songs, it also suffers from its runtime. At 47 minutes it’s not the worst offender of pop’s current penchant for bloated tracklists, but it still could lose a track or two. The singer’s ability to take commonly used phrases and reinvent them in the context of her experiences is noteworthy, but it also highlights a prevalent weakness of the record. Musgraves struggles to fully bare her songwriting to each track, falling behind metaphors and clichés a few too many times. For instance, Musgraves signifies that she has moved on in “justified” as she sings “Healin’ doesn’t happen in a straight line,” proclaiming that she is taking her time to harness every emotion that rose from her breakup. Though probably true, the lyrical content feels too ponderous and on the nose to be considered introspective—a far cry from the artist’s bruisingly insightful and visionary ponderings in the past. This becomes particularly noticeable both lyrically and sonically during the album’s struggling second arc.
The maturity and class displayed on star-crossed is a pleasant surprise for a breakup album as Musgraves honors the love of the man she was once in love with, reminiscing on the brighter memories as heartily as she stews over the darker ones. It’s a simple yet complex record where most of the songs unexpectedly click into place with ease given the music’s overarching themes. The theatrical guise the album takes on not only interweaves classical elements alongside the broad and diverse production, but also mishmashes tons of atmosphere, intrigue, and vivid personality on the record—managing to provide a nuanced yet ultimately hopeful statement on resilience and redemption.