REVIEW |’Star-Crossed’ Doesn’t Play To Kacey Musgraves’ Strengths

Kacey Musgraves has almost everything she could possibly want; six-Grammys, millions of loyal listeners, near-universal critical acclaim and rare country-pop crossover success. *Almost* everything. Despite being one of the most successful people – and certainly the most successful woman – to come out of the country world in recent years, her music is almost wholly absent on country radio and, as she herself said in 2018 (before sweeping the Grammys a few months later), “Grammys, critical acclaim, even the quality of the music—nothing matters except how much radio play you’re getting”. Part of her failure to gain traction on country radio lies in the industry’s long-standing scepticism towards female artists, but more specifically for Musgraves, it can be traced back to her 2013 single ‘Follow Your Arrow’. Specifically, it can be traced back to one lyric: “Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls / If that’s something you’re into”. The line incensed the conservative-leaning country music industry and saw the then 24 year old blacklisted from scores of country-radio stations.

Musgrave’s blacklisting threatened to crush her career before it had even properly gotten off the ground, but instead, she only soared in the years following; drawing an ever-larger cult following and racking up scores of awards in the process. Meanwhile, she leaned into her progressive outsider bonafides, became a gay-icon and achieved huge crossover success. Her efforts ultimately culminated in the blockbuster ‘Golden Hour’; a massive critical success that bagged Musgraves all four of the Grammys she was nominated for – including Album of The Year (resulting in this glorious meme). Already, ‘Golden Hour’ has grabbed a spot on Rolling Stone’s coveted list of the best 500 albums ever.

Now, three-and-a-half-years after ‘Golden Hour’, Musgraves faces the impossible task of following up her fourth studio album. Much like Lana Del Rey and Lorde this year, she faces expectations so high, she’s almost sure to disappoint (even if, like in the case of Lana Del Rey, the resulting album is actually pretty good). Musgraves is put in an even harder position because of her divorce to fellow singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly that occurred between the release of ‘Golden Hour’ and the making of this album. ‘Golden Hour’ soared because of it’s psychedelic breeziness, it’s open-eyed innocence and it’s belief in the simple beauty of the everyday world. The dreaded divorce album, however, requires a sombre and diaristic approach that Musgraves feels almost uniquely unsuited to.

The Shakespearean-titled ‘Star-Crossed’ begins with a dramatic, Latin-influenced scene-setting title track that lives up to the drama suggested by it’s title: “let me set the scene / Two lovers ripped right at the seams” she begins, and ends with cries of “star-crossed” that become more and more pained with each repetition. The 15-track LP, meanwhile, ends with a disconcerting Spanish-language cover of ‘gracias a la vida’ (originally Violeta Parra’s tribute to the world, released shortly before she committed suicide); that takes refreshing, left-field creative liberties. Both the opener and closer of this record work perfectly well, it’s in-between the two where problems begin to emerge.

‘Star-Crossed’ sees Musgraves abandon her country roots almost entirely: only her faint Texas twang remaining of her musical roots. With the success artists like Taylor Swift had from shedding their country-skin, and with ‘Golden Hour’ seemingly placing Musgraves on the brink of widespread mainstream success, it’s easy to see why Musgraves embarked on this musical direction. However, what made Musgraves’ music so interesting to begin with was it’s seamless and utterly joyous infusion of two very different genres; without losing the essence of either of them. As a straightforward pop star, Musgraves loses much of what originally made her interesting and too many of the songs of ‘Star-Crossed’ come and go at the same predictable pace; with heavy-handed production and frequent electronic touches that diminish the intensity of the emotional turmoil at the heart of these tunes.

What’s most unforgiveable about ‘Star-Crossed’, however, is it’s reliance on tired clichés; even by the standards of mainstream pop, Musgraves deference to well-worn clichés here is unparalleled. ‘Star-Crossed’s 15 tracks are scattered with references to going “off of the deep end”, rainy days, journeying to “hell and back”, bright stars, lights “at the end of the tunnel” and keeping your “head in the clouds”. While not quite to this same degree, ‘Golden Hour’ was also unafraid to engage in the cliched and well-trodden; but on that record, this only sought to enforce the narrator’s wide-eyed, childlike innocence and optimism, where as here it just sounds juvenile and jarringly ill-suited to the subject matter at hand.

‘Star-Crossed’s best moments occur at – surprisingly – it’s most diaristic and – conversely – at it’s most playful. The album’s most straightforward ballad here, ‘Camera Roll’, shines precisely because of it’s minimalism and matter-of-fact recounting of facts: it paints a vivid picture of Musgraves flicking through old photographs of her and Kelly, experiencing all the highs and lows of nostalgia at once (“Chronological order ain’t nothing but torture”). In zooming in on painfully specific past photos (“There’s one where we look so in love / Before we lost all the sun / And I made you take it”) and distanced reflections (“I’m moving on / And now you’re only living in my phone”), the song creates one of the album’s most truly affecting moments. It offers a glimpse of what this album could’ve and should’ve been; an understated, timeless, zero-irony, minimalist reflection on love and it’s aftermath.

The album’s other highlights, meanwhile, (‘breadwinner’, ‘justified’) work as the yin to ‘camera roll’s yang; recapturing some of ‘Golden Hour’s’ playfulness, with similarly hooky choruses. ‘Justified’ offers an unapologetic, self-loving embrace of the messiness of emotions (“If I cry just a little and then laugh in the middle / If I hate you and I love you, and then I change my mind”). ‘Breadwinner’, meanwhile, the closest this album has to a ‘High Horse’ moment, is a slinky piece of R&B-infused pop reminiscent of Positions-era Ariana Grande. Here, metaphors aren’t relegated to being one line throwaways but are extended to convey a breadth of emotion; playfulness, condemnation and clarity of thought (“He wants a breadwinner / He wants your dinner / Until he ain’t hungry anymore”).

Moments like this are unfortunately few are far between on ‘Star-Crossed’ – a by-no-means dull album, but one that frequently gets lost in a sort of pleasant fog. It’s no crushing disappointment, or massive step-down in quality in the same way Lorde’s ‘Solar Power’ was, but it’s hard to listen to ‘Star-Crossed’, without feeling like Musgraves most interesting qualities have been flattened and homogenized. Perhaps, such was always going to be the case for an album whose sombre subject matter so stubbornly refuses to play to Musgraves strengths.

Score: 6.7

Best Tracks: ‘Camera Roll’, ‘Justified’, ‘Star-Crossed’, ‘Breadwinner’

Worst Tracks: ‘Keep Lookin’ Up’

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