Album review: ‘Star-crossed’ plays it sonically safe, depicts nuanced divorce heartbreak
(Courtesy of Interscope Records)
By Ashley Kim
Sept. 10, 2021 3:18 p.m.
When the golden hour passes, clouds of heartbreak flourish.
With her new record “star-crossed,” country singer Kacey Musgraves follows up on the glow of “Golden Hour” and reminisces on the sorrow of divorce as well as the journey that accompanies it. Her fifth studio album is loosely organized in a three-act structure that moves from heartache to turbulence to peace, tracking Musgraves’ growth until she herself is finally content. Though the organization is not evenly split between track numbers as may be expected, the irregularity reveals the nonlinearity of healing.
The title track acts as a prologue to the album, establishing the tale Musgraves sets out to tell with concise, yet clever, exposition. Though modern media is oversaturated with adaptations of and references to “Romeo and Juliet,” Musgraves refreshes the story by juxtaposing their tragic deaths with the image of lovers waking up from a perfect dream. The song is cinematic in scope, painted in broad strokes and specific flicks that make the material generalizable yet still specific to Musgraves’ own experiences – a pleasant introduction into the album’s world.
Yet diving deeper, the writing is mostly straightforward. In “good wife,” Musgraves plainly states her grievances about her divorce and who she forced herself to become to please her husband. However, she finds power within this simplicity, maximizing the impact of her lyrics with an honest turn of phrase, singing, “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.” Her words are cutting in their mournfulness, direct and unadorned for emotional effect alongside simple production.
The singer’s ability to take commonly used phrases and reinvent them in the context of her experiences is noteworthy, but some of the lines turn trite. Musgraves signifies that she has moved on in “justified,” both lyrically and sonically, but her words are too stark and sound too mellow to be her best attempt. With playful guitar and percussion in the background, she sings “Healin’ doesn’t happen in a straight line,” while proclaiming that she is taking her time to process the multitude of emotions that rose from the dissolution of her relationship. Though probably true, the lyrics are not particularly inspired and feels too on the nose to be considered introspective.
But the occasionally weak lyrics can be forgiven by the powerful three-track arc in the middle of the album that starts with “camera roll” and ends with “hookup scene.” With these songs, Musgraves varies her sound by utilizing pop-adjacent production that strays from her country roots and recounts the visceral pain of letting go of an all-consuming connection through modern references to hookup culture and social media deep dives. The slight sonic shift reflects the contemporary ideas at the center of these songs and shows Musgraves maturing in her understanding of heartbreak, but she still plays it safe and does not take sonic risks.
For instance, the artist uses clever rhymes in “camera roll” like “Chronological order ain’t nothing but torture” to warn herself of the dangers of going through her photos to reminisce on her relationship, one that now only lives on her phone. In the following song, Musgraves is not afraid to be self-referential when she contrasts the ease with which she creates melodies to the difficulty of loving someone, using metacommentary to add a new perspective on love. This ache bleeds over into “hookup scene,” where Musgraves yearns for a real connection amid meaningless encounters to a stripped guitar backdrop.
Finally, after an album’s worth of winding healing experiences and melancholic nights spent alone, the journey comes to its conclusion with a song, sung entirely in Spanish, celebrating life for all the good and the bad. Experimental with her sound – with synth-sounding vocals and muffled tones – Musgraves signifies a new beginning. Though the sudden change in aesthetic is jarring and seems random in the context of the album as a whole, she does illustrate her point.
As a whole, Musgraves’ writing is a bit cliche and her sound is too cautious despite incorporating more pop, never varying and staying too comfortable in a safe zone – save for the closer. With “star-crossed,” she does not reach the celestial heights of her previous album, “Golden Hour,” but manages to provide a nuanced yet ultimately hopeful stance on heartbreak.
After all, the stars always shine bright after the storm.