What if our darkest tragedy became our greatest triumph? That’s the question Kacey Musgraves seeks to answer in ‘star-crossed’, her masterpiece of a fourth album.
On February 10th, 2019, Musgraves defied the expectations of music’s most seasoned critics in beating the likes of zeitgeist-y types Drake and Post Malone to the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
Her reaction may have been memed from coast to coast, but many people watched - and subsequently fawned over - how she was able to welcome the honour beside her husband, Ruston Kelly, the muse in which her last album, honeymoon-tinged ‘Golden Hour’, was created. A trippy celebration of falling in love and everything that comes with it.
She kisses him and makes her way to the stage, becoming a household name in a matter of seconds. For some, herself included, watching that footage back and listening to those songs could be a bittersweet experience. After all, the subversive, shroom-taking, crown jewel of America’s otherwise-conservative country scene has a markedly different life now. She may have risen to mainstream popularity, but she lost her muse in the process.
‘star-crossed’ is a body of work once-again revolving around Kelly, through the eyes of a divorcee this time. As explained by the artist herself, seasons changed and two misaligned souls that didn’t quite work rose to the surface.
Death of a marriage, we’re so often told, is the second worst pain a person can endure beyond the permanent loss of a loved one. Here, we’re invited to join our protagonist as she makes sense of what happened, and why.
Musgraves knows the world she is building for us is rooted in her suffering now, a task she does not shy away from, even at the offset. The bulk of this work still has its roots in country-style storytelling, with a plethora of instrumental embellishments that almost always pay off.
Her debut performance of the album’s namesake at the VMA’s starts like a candlelit prom night. “Let me set the scene,” she begins, enveloped in fingerpicked Latin guitars. “Two lovers ripped at the seams/They woke up from the perfect dream/And then darkness came” - the song leads to a darkly dramatic, fittingly Shakespearean, choir-chant. The audience were left thwarted by a 12ft heart, burning away at the center of the stage. It’s dazzling, and we’re only at the beginning.
Older fans might want songs with the biting, scorned-woman style flourish of greats like Dolly and Carrie, even old-school Taylor Swift. The fact it’s not that makes it so good. Each type of ‘break-up album’ can sit confident in its own brilliance. Rendering the debate about tracklist sequencing in the wake of streaming ever-redundant, Musgraves finds catharsis in explaining her experience in a traditional three act structure: the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution.
15 of the 40 songs she produced throughout the pandemic made the cut for an even split, each chunk taking on a different aspect of her divorce.
You realise you’re listening to an even greater Grammy contender early on, with a three song gut-punch spanning ‘simple times’, ‘if this was a movie..’, and ‘justified’. Sometimes it’s the vocoded vocals that do it, other times it’s the percussion that feels modelled on the beat of her own heart.
Grief in any capacity isn’t linear. Though the compartmentalising serves a greater narrative purpose here, Musgraves clearly did not have her life together for quite some time when this was happening. Part of her cover shoot for Rolling Stone magazine depicts her barely keeping her head above water. Every part of that experience is captured on this album.
Boiled down to its composite pieces, you’ll find the following: This marriage happened for the right reasons but my life is very different now. Did I want to be someone’s wife or did I just want to love them? I need this to be better. But I can tolerate it. No actually, I can’t. I wish things were simple. I’m free. But I don’t want to be alone. I will learn to. It’s getting better. And I’m learning to be thankful.
‘star-crossed’ demands to be listened to in one go for this reason. It’s an album very hard to cherry pick from in the way some of this year’s biggest releases have been. You might not think you have 47 minutes to spare, but I can assure you that you do.
We’re forever being forced into the incomprehension of nuance, but there is no enemy here and it’s refreshing that way. Like most real-life breakups, Musgraves and her ex-husband have evidently both done things that contributed to the slow erosion of their partnership. Acknowledging this does not dull the sharp edges she processes in reflecting (‘breadwinner’), moving on (‘hookup scene’), and looking forward (the disco-inspired, hypnotic ‘there is a light’).
I thought my heart would break for her in a different way throughout this journey. But actually, Kacey Musgraves will be fine without our pity. She has calcified a range of difficult, overwhelming, sometimes liberating emotions into a time capsule marking the most turbulent time of her life.
This is heart on sleeve storytelling, but towards the end of the journey you sense our protagonist is doing a little better now. As she should - it’s the start of a seminal new era.
Words: Shannon McDonagh
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