Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Kacey Musgraves star-crossed

MCA Nashville/Interscope
MCA Nashville/Interscope

Kacey Musgraves knew her fairytale couldn’t last. She put it right there in the middle of the fairytale. “I’m the kind of person who starts getting kinda nervous when I’m having the time of my life,” she sang on “Happy & Sad,” one of the many sighing folk-pop gems on 2018’s Golden Hour. On most of those songs, the bliss crowded out the doubts. There were outliers — the spectacular breakup anthem “Space Cowboy,” the indignant country-disco banger “High Horse,” the tender piano ballads “Mother” and “Rainbow” — but the album was largely consumed with Musgraves’ new marriage to fellow Nashville singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly. It was a portrait of domestic contentment that played like one long psychedelic swoon, and man was it good.

Golden Hour captured an intoxicating vibe, but it was more than just a vibes record. It had personality. It had hooks. It had surprise production flourishes — the vocoder choir on “Oh, What A World,” the string arrangement that formed patterns in the sky on “Slow Burn” — and lyrics that stepped you directly into the world of each song. (I am partial to this description of an unstoppable persevering love: “Running like a river trying to find the ocean/ Flowers in the concrete.”) Most importantly, it had Kacey Musgraves’ voice, bright and sweet and softly twangy, beaming across the pastel impressionist backdrops like the light trailing behind a sparkler. After two albums subtly bucking the conventions of mainstream country from within, Musgraves had staked out her own sonic space and was enjoying it with her beloved.

God, I love Golden Hour. My whole family loves it. My wife and daughters and I spent months and months immersing ourselves in the album, making it the soundtrack of our lives. We were far from the only ones. Golden Hour seemed to take over the world in 2018. It wouldn’t be quite right to call it her pop breakthrough — 2013 debut Same Trailer, Different Park is still her highest-charting album, and it spun off her two biggest hits, “Follow Your Arrow” and “Merry Go ‘Round” — but Golden Hour rocketed Musgraves to new levels of celebrity and prestige. Rave reviews and fawning profiles proliferated. Awards shows showered the album with trophies, capped off by a Grammy for Album Of The Year. (Golden Hour remains the only album to be declared the year’s best by both the Recording Academy and this website.) Soon she was hosting her own star-studded Christmas special on Amazon Prime.

Amidst all those career triumphs, the romance that inspired Golden Hour began to fall apart, which in turn inspired the next Kacey Musgraves album. Next week, a little more than a year after Musgraves and Kelly announced their divorce, she’ll return with star-crossed, an album that traces the end of their marriage in faded neon streaks. The record is Golden Hour‘s emotional inverse, a document of sadness, turmoil, and scathing contempt marked by flickers of hope here and there. On the immaculate, contagiously buoyant “what doesn’t kill me,” she spells it out: “I’ve been to hell and back, golden hour faded black.” But sonically it continues further down the same road as Golden Hour, into the great wide open beyond the confines of a country radio ecosystem that never fully embraced Musgraves anyway. She is an adult contemporary artist now, one with her own sense of style and a flair for experimentation. (“justified,” probably the country-est song here, immerses her acoustic strums into a disco-funk echo chamber.)

In interviews, Musgraves has repeatedly described star-crossed as a three-act Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. Without that framing, I’m not sure I would have noticed such distinct sections within the album’s arc. Theoretically, the first five songs explore the demise of her marriage, the next five delve into the bitterness and despair of the aftermath, and the last five feature Musgraves starting to get over her heartbreak. But divorce is too messy to fit into neatly defined segments, and as Musgraves puts it, “Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line.” So star-crossed can go from Musgraves admitting both parties have fault on “justified,” to absolutely eviscerating* Kelly on “breadwinner” two tracks later, to expressing regret about splitting up with him on “hookup scene” four tracks after that. There’s an admirable vulnerability and emotional honesty in the lyrics, a frankness about Musgraves’ own complicated feelings and the ways she feels let down by her ex-husband.

(*The “breadwinner” chorus: “He wants a breadwinner/ He wants your dinner/ Until he ain’t hungry anymore/ He wants your shimmer/ To make him feel bigger/ Until he starts feeling insecure/ I wish somebody would have told me the truth/ See, he’s never gonna know what to do/ With a woman like you.” Damn, Kacey!)

What is not messy is the sound of the album. Musgraves brought back her Golden Hour writing and production partners Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, and together they’ve ensured star-crossed is crystalline and clear even at its dreamiest, maintaining a firm sonic identity while taking an impressive amount of stylistic risks. The album bears traces of the guitar-driven Y2K-era pop that’s in vogue right now — Michelle Branch, Natalie Imbruglia, the kind of stuff you’d see on VH1 if you clicked away from TRL — but for a number of reasons, it’s so much more vivid and engaging than Lorde’s recent work in a similar milieu. Musgraves is bringing heavy emotional stakes, a wide range of musical ideas, and a preternatural ability for melody to the table, all of which makes star-crossed feel more like a refreshing exploration of those old sounds than a stale retread.

The translucent melancholy in these tracks makes me wonder if Musgraves has been listening to the similarly lowercased color theory, which would make sense because she took Soccer Mommy on tour while supporting Golden Hour. There’s also a bit of late Bon Iver’s fractured, off-kilter production, and indeed 22, A Million co-architect BJ Burton helped out on a couple tracks — albeit not the ones that sound like Justin Vernon refracting into a cubist painting. One that does evoke that deconstructed cyborg balladeer feeling is an album-closing cover of “Gracias a la Vida” by Chilean folk pioneer Violeta Parra — sung in the original Spanish — that descends into art-damaged vocal processing also reminiscent of Rosalía’s El Mal Querer.

Speaking of Rosalía: After a choir of Kaceys provides the album’s spine-tingling introduction, dramatic flamenco guitar helps set the scene before “star-crossed” blooms into understated pseudo-EDM. The Latin influence pops up again on the celebratory climax “there is a light,” which boasts vibrant hand percussion and dares to deploy jazz flute. On “good wife,” a tapestry of moody acoustic guitars builds to a more downcast sort of grandiose ’70s funk, while “breadwinner” builds lite ultralounge dance-pop on a sophistipop foundation. The way “if this was a movie” morphs from Sea Change to “6 Underground” is mesmerizing. Again and again, the arrangements are far more graceful than the gaudy cover art would have you believe.

Some may still find this sonic palette chintzy and distasteful, especially those who long for Musgraves to return to her country roots. On the other hand, country is where she picked up her reliance on simple metaphors and clichés; one of the most glaring, “I’d be your silver lining/ Not a cloud full of rain,” calls back to the first song on her debut album. But Musgraves mostly sells even her hokiest lyrics by fully committing to every line, up to and including the conclusion that she’s been hiding the light inside of her and now is ready to let it shine. A similar unflinching belief in accents like that jazz flute reminds me that, as on Vampire Weekend’s Father Of The Bride, impeccable songwriting can redeem just about any aesthetic choices. What ultimately keeps star-crossed from living up to Golden Hour‘s masterpiece status is not trite lyrics or tacky presentation but a few too many drowsy mood pieces like “angel,” “easier said,” and “keep lookin’ up,” which leave the album feeling longer than its 47-minute runtime.

To Musgraves’ credit, those songs are all growing on me as I learn the contours of the album. In the meantime, a pair of the sparsest ballads are my early favorites, perhaps because of how deftly they convey the pain of splitting up what was supposed to be a lifelong romance. Atop little more than chiming finger-picked acoustic guitar, “hookup scene” affixes a gliding, cascading Musgraves hook to a powerful plainspoken moral: “So 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.” The knife turns even more brutally on “camera roll,” which depicts her scrolling back through her phone and being confronted by a wealth of happy memories she’d already forgotten. Part Elliott Smith tearjerker, part Disney lullaby, the track brims with aching beauty as Musgraves sketches out an especially modern predicament: “I don’t wanna see ’em, but I can’t delete ’em/ It just doesn’t feel right yet.” For a little while longer, she’ll hold on to the fairytale.

star-crossed is out 9/10 on MCA Nashville/Interscope.

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