In 1990, when Kacey Musgraves was two years old, her songwriting hero-to-be John Prine drawled to a U.K. Channel 4 audience, “Seems like some of the best country songs over the years have come from some of the sadder situations in life—like divorce. Having recently acquired my second divorce, about a month later the song truck pulled up and dumped a bunch of great songs on my lawn.” Prine then gave an early performance of one of the finest divorce songs ever, “All the Best.” Using a melody that’s deceptively childlike—”dumbstruck” might be a better term—the song is a wrecked person’s offer of absolution to the one who wrecked him. But that maturity comes at a cost: “Kids don’t know, they can only guess,” Prine sings, “how hard it is to wish you happiness.”
Cut to 31 years later. It’s been 17 months since the pandemic took Prine away from the world. And now it is Musgraves’ turn, as a crossover country-pop star with a Grammy album-of-the-year award on her shelf for 2018’s Golden Hour, to be paid a visit by the “song truck” after her own divorce. Out of its dispensations—reportedly some 40 songs in all—she’s assembled a 15-track emotional travelogue through the dissolution of the marriage whose early glow Golden Hour was mostly devoted to extolling. This record, Star-Crossed, expands on the mellow psychedelic-country-synth sound she discovered on that album with co-producers Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, suitably enough, given that this one was shaped in part by a therapeutic guided mushroom trip.
(It also comes with an accompanying “film” streaming on Paramount+, directed by Bardia Zeinali, that I haven’t yet seen in full. Based on glimpses in the videos released so far, it’s far from a Beyoncé-level cultural palimpsest, despite their common marital-strife themes. In her early song “Silver Lining”, Musgraves sang that “lemonade keeps turning into lemons,” but here it seems more like Lemonade turning into lemon gumdrops, plus appearances from Princess Nokia among others, and that seems plenty sweet enough.)
Breakup songs and divorce albums can be spiteful, sorrowful, defiant, or find the space to be all three. Recent examples in country music, for instance, include Miranda Lambert’s killer 2016 double album The Weight of These Wings and the Chicks’ Gaslighter last year. Star-Crossed reaches for the mix of naked hurt with forgiveness and forbearance that Prine hit on “All the Best,” and taken as a whole, it touches all those zones. Yet moment by moment, the music often feels diffused or restrained, whether by Musgraves’ still-fresh uncertainties or due to the pressure on an artist following up a breakthrough album to spin her darkest fabrics into pop gold. (Unlike her previous albums, this one is co-released by mainstream label Interscope with MCA Nashville.) Whatever the cause, Star-Crossed’s laid-bare emotions and exquisite craft don’t pierce the human core as consistently as Musgraves has done at her previous best, let alone the way her hero did.
Unlike, for instance, Natalie Maines on Gaslighter, Musgraves doesn’t devote much of Star-Crossed to settling scores. “I’m not a ruthless person,” she told Elle magazine in May. “I care about other people’s feelings.” But considering the face-slap of energy that comes with the one exception, “Breadwinner”—a Haim-like dance-pop wiggler aimed at skewed power relationships and the kind of guy who “wants your shimmer/to make him feel bigger”—maybe a little more exasperation was in order. In the past, on songs like “Merry-Go-Round” and “Good Ol’ Boys Club” (about her refusal to suck up to the conservative demands of country radio) and Golden Hour’s “High Horse,” Musgraves has been at her most piquant when she’s taking the piss out of false fronts, whether intimate or societal.
Still, I’m with her on not taking a scorched-earth approach to the endings of love, and that’s vindicated by how affecting it is here whenever she shoulders her share of the fault. For instance, in the memorably hooky and stealthily annihilating second single “Justified,” the chorus line “you shoulda treated me right” transforms late in the song into “I shoulda treated you right.” Likewise, in the stripped-down, achingly direct “Angel,” she wishes to be saintly and unperturbed by trouble so that neither partner would have to change for the other—but that’s not reality, and the truth is, “Something’s gotta change.” And on perhaps the album’s sharpest song, a painful waltz through lost time called “Camera Roll,” involving an ill-advised late-night scroll through her phone’s photo album (“chronological order/ and nothin’ but torture”) that climaxes with an especially wrenching image of past bliss, and the protagonist remembering, “I made you take it”—making her the direct author of her own present misery. Often these reversals of perspective are channeled through vocal filters that audibly underline the alienation effects.
At first, the album follows a clear narrative arc. The title track is an overture to the whole song suite, setting up the separation scenario and establishing the way the album will traverse genres as, for instance, guitarist Todd Lombardo’s Spanish-style runs melt into harp-like rippling keyboards and then, after the beat drops, evolve into Tangerine Dream-like crystalline spirals of spacey prog synths. The second track, “Good Wife,” travels back in time to the early days of the marriage via a monologue about being a good partner, which could seem like retrograde gender-role stuff if the tension between lists of superficial signs of devotion and surfacing internal doubts didn’t so blatantly signal the shoals ahead. Even the pleasantly forgettable love-bop “Cherry Blossom” (distasteful touches of Eastern exoticism and all) keeps disclosing danger as Musgraves repeats, “Don’t let me blow away.” In “Simple Times” she’s confessing that “being grown up kind of sucks” and regressing mentally into dreams of hanging out in high-tops and lip gloss at the mall—if the Y2K-teen-pop lilt of the music weren’t enough to frame the nostalgic atmosphere, the bridge nails it with: “I heard about a rager/ I won’t be waiting by the phone/ So you can hit me on the pager.” By the next track, she’s fantasizing about how romantic calamity would be sidestepped “If This Was a Movie,” and so cues up the inevitable downfall.
For much of its run, the album’s arc is roughly in line with what Musgrave has described as a “tragedy in three acts.” But Star-Crossed doesn’t have the nerve to follow through. Unlike true melodramas, it devotes far too much of its back half to self-help affirmations that sap the gravity from what’s come before. Reassuring clichés pile up between the SoCal-style-swaying “Easier Said” (than done, of course), the campfire twanger “Keep Lookin’ Up” (at the stars, don’t you know), “What Doesn’t Kill Me” (well, it makes her so darn much stronger), and “There Is a Light” (guess where? could it be the end of the tunnel?). The one outlier in this sequence, “Hookup Scene,” backs off a promising premise about the agonies of trying to date again into more bromides, this time about holding onto monogamy if you can. Maybe it’s intended as a mood rather than a moral, but any ambiguities are smothered by the pieties.
These are distressing lapses from such a gifted writer. This record’s vulnerability may call for plainspokenness, but any student of Prine should know that’s not the same as banality. Star-Crossed is Musgraves’ first album absent frequent Nashville songwriting partners like Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, and perhaps Fitchuk and Tashian are less given to challenging her lyrically. Golden Hour played down the country wordplay of her first couple of albums too, but even its most rose-colored jaunts rarely got this generic. With her “plant-based” insights and healing-is-a-process vibes here, Musgraves risks coming off as a celebrity with a malfunctioning bullshit meter, failing to distinguish actual wisdom from woo-woo, Instagram-slogan drivel (it may not help that she’s now reportedly dating an actual Instagram poet-slash-ad-copywriter). This defect is reminiscent of Lorde’s recent, similarly low-key Solar Power, but at least the New Zealand songwriter was self-aware enough to make fun of herself for it.
Thankfully, though, the final minutes of Star-Cross salvage its emotional center, partly through a bold choice of Musgrave’s and partly through some musical maneuvers for which her co-producers must deserve some credit. Just as one’s attention threatens to drift permanently away during “There Is a Light,” it suddenly soars off into a breakdown that’s equal parts Minnie Riperton-esque, 1970s fusion-R&B and “Vogue”-era Madonna, plus one big unequal part an unhinged jazz-flute solo by Nashville multi-instrumental assassin Jim Hoke, who demonstrates thoroughly why he boasts such a mind-blowing resumé (Dolly Parton to Paul McCartney to Burt Bacharach barely scratches it).
This infusion of stardust carries the album into its closing salvo, a cover of the classic “Gracias a la Vida” by the Chilean Nueva Canción revolutionary singer-songwriter Violeta Parra, whom Musgraves discovered in Argentine singer’s Mercedes Sosa’s extraordinary version as part of the soundtrack to her aforementioned shrooms journey. The arrangement at first cleaves fairly close to the bare outlines of Sosa’s, which still permits Musgraves to show off hitherto unsuspected aspects of her range and vocal coloration, in the Texan singer’s first Spanish-language recording. (She’s been taking lessons.) But as it proceeds, digital effects start to transport the music away from its folkloric roots and into the Golden Hour/Star-Crossed musical metaverse, until it’s drenched in echo and woosh that fits perfectly with Musgraves’ personal translation of the term “star-crossed” in her interview with Stephen Colbert the other night: “cosmically fucked.” Lombardo’s Spanish guitars and these layered vocals also tether it back to the beginning of the album, suggesting less a “three-act tragedy” than, probably more aptly to the experiences of a woman in her early 30s, a cyclic pattern of love, loss, learning, and liberation.
And beyond the soundscapes, Parra’s lyrics combine plainspokenness and poetry in ways Prine would genuflect to, as she gives thanks (not long before her real-life suicide) to “life, which has given me so much,” including the senses, sound, language, “tired feet,” and the heart—the better to experience its “night and day, crickets and canaries, hammers, turbines, howls, and torrential rains … cities and puddles, beaches and deserts, mountains and plains, your street, your house, and your doorstep.” The song ends with a verse in praise of both joy and pain, “the two forces that form my song/ and your song, which is the same song/ and everyone’s song, which is my own.” Or as Prine sang it in country-ese, “It’s a doggone shame/ And it’s an awful mess/ I wish you love/ I wish you happiness.”
Musgraves’ light may lose its path in places on Star-Crossed, but in these closing minutes, she certainly lays down guideposts for more fascinating potential phases to follow. I’m impatient to hear them, but meanwhile there is plenty here to nurse a person into the late hours—when, as she sings at one point, the “golden hour [has] faded black,” as it does for all of us from time to time, and eventually, altogether and always.