Kacey Musgraves

MCA Nashville/Interscope, 2021

REVIEW BY: Peter Piatkowski


Kacey Musgraves has deservedly earned accolades and respect as one of the most interesting and creative country singer-songwriters of the last few years. A powerful and intelligent voice in the genre, she joins artists like Lucinda Williams, Rosanne Cash, and Emmylou Harris, all of whom looked at C&W music and worked hard to play with sounds and conventions of country music. On her latest, Star-Crossed, Musgraves looks to soul, rock, pop to inform her diverse sound. Inspired by her recent divorce from fellow country star Ruston Kelly, Star-Crossed is a thrilling, if ultimately sad, record that mines the different shades of sorrow. It’s another triumph for a singer-songwriter who has largely forged a sound of all her own.

The most striking thing about listening to Star-Crossed is how textured and heavy the production sounds. This is not a lean record with an ear to economy; at any given moment, you’ll hear lush orchestration, voluptuous synthesizers, scratchy vocal filters, thumping bass, and strumming guitars. Though there’s a danger in sounding gaudy – and there are moments when the sounds on Star-Crossed tip towards overwhelming Musgraves’ voice and her lyrics – it’s also a richly rewarding listen, a smorgasbord of the kind of music that would probably play on Musgraves’ playlist. It’s an interesting balance that feels somewhat teetering throughout the album: how to make the record sound full yet not feel overproduced. More often than not, Musgraves and her collaborators pull it off, and in the moments when there’s too much studio trickery involved, the songs are still well-written and well-sung.

The result of having so much studio gloss and sheen ladled over the songs means that it’s a bit of a search to find the country in the record. Never much of a traditionalist, Musgraves’ sound used country music as a starting point to go off on musical tangents, but on Star-Crossed, she doesn’t seem fussed to reassure her Ole Opry fans that she’s still country; instead, she looks to disparate influences to chart the bruising heartbreak of a failed marriage.

Divorce and heartache are subjects that have been a staple for country music. Some of the genre’s most iconic moments have been about love lost. When Dolly sadly lamented the end of her love in “I Will Always Love You” or when Tammy Wynette spelled it out for her audiences with “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” or when Rosanne Cash dedicated a whole album (my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Interiors) to lost love, country audiences nodded in appreciation. Country music is an especially hospitable genre for the hurt woman because so much of the genre’s songs – especially those written and sung by women – delve into the deep, dark, personal lives of their singers.

The opening track and title tune sets the tone of the album. It opens with a synth-heavy, harmonized vocals, followed by a solitary classical guitar, before Musgraves’ mournful voice addresses her audience:

Let me set the scene
Two lovers ripped right at the seams
They woke up from the perfect dream
And then the darkness came

Musgraves is then joined with programmed drumming (that with the strumming guitar has a faint echo of early 2000s Latin pop) as she describes a couple going through the process of a divorce. The song is an excellent introduction to the album. The album’s searching and raw lyrics are belied by the heavy, polished production to create a dizzying juxtaposition, a weird contrast of the sad ugliness of a divorce with the gorgeous, opulent production.

Regret and devastation is laced throughout the rest of the record, even if it sounds sumptuous. In “Good Wife,” Musgraves makes the case that she did her best in the failed relationship. The song borrows heavily from the grand, expansive sounds of ‘70s Philadelphia soul music. And “Cherry Blossom” opens with a distorted synthesized sound that would sound at home on a Sia or Beyonce record. In both songs, she longingly about a past that no longer is true; it’s a ruminative approach to pop music.

Though the tone of the record as a whole is somewhat subdued and reflective, there are some spikier moments that enliven the mood. Looking to urban pop and dance music, she sasses the proceedings significantly with the feisty “Breadwinner,” in which she warns other women of hangers-on who don’t know what to do with complex and intelligent women. Though the lyrics are barbed and pointed, as is the production, Musgraves’ sweet voice glides smoothly, not picking up on the song’s timbre. It’s an interesting choice to make because her delivery, coupled with the radio-friendly production, makes the song seem like a fun, getting ready to-go out pop tune, until someone actually looks at the finger-wagging lyrics.

Like most concept albums, it feels like there’s a progression of sorts. So even though Star-Crossed starts off with melancholy it moves toward more assertive songs that reassure her listeners that despite her personal tragedy, she’ll be alright. The hard-won confidence of “What Doesn’t Kill Me” feels earned after listening to the earlier songs of pain and heartbreak. “There Is A Light” is another optimistic tune that has engaging lyrics, but this is one of the songs in which Coco Chanel’s suggestion of leaving off one accessory at home should have been heeded. The song is the epitome of a gilded lily, with an unnecessary flute and a not-so-great inclusion of vocal vamps, taking away from the powerful message of empowerment. But regardless of that misstep, moving away from the bruise of divorce to the healing reminds us of what that other great philosopher of country music, Dolly Parton once said, “If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”

Rating: B

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