There is something unmistakably austere about Kacey Musgraves’ fourth album. Which is not a thing you often say about a record that—as star-crossed is—is quite produced. Musgraves does not spare the bells and whistles; we have pitch-shifted vocals, programmed drums, a great deal of simulated atmosphere and processing on the guitars (sometimes too much), etc. But it is a deep and lonesome work. It feels like a sort of free-floating pain, the way you sometimes drift emotionally in the wake of a breakup, divorce or other significant bond-shattering that occurs between two people. The sound of others’ voices is somewhat muffled. The surfaces you touch feel less substantial. Ghosts of long-gone happiness or contentment float up at you. All of the songs on star-crossed have this purgatorial quality to them. Musgraves is not in hell, but isn’t far from its border, and the proximity has caused a sort of dissociation that the music echoes.
star-crossed is unquestionably pop music, much the same way that Musgraves’ 2018 masterpiece Golden Hour was. Based on statements in interviews and other press materials in this album rollout, she has no interest in apologizing for adding pop flourishes to her work, though she is more straightforward about the process of doing so. (Just as contrast, Taylor Swift hardly bothered to acknowledge her shift from pop-country toward plain old pop, at least not until it crashed into a brick wall with Reputation. And I don’t think that was even a wrong decision on her part.) But Musgraves is a sincere creator and fan of country music, and as such, she understands that the reason it matters to people is, as Hank Williams notably said, its sincerity. So she pours all of the emotional honesty that she has into this record, a chronicle of her recent divorce.
You know exactly where you stand going into star-crossed. For one, the title is fucking star-crossed. But seriously, the high lonesome is everywhere in the sound of this thing, even when the genre of one specific tune or another cannot precisely be called country. The guitars are mostly picked or lightly strummed. Synth lines and textures are there, but they’re usually not overpowering. The rhythm section is often understated, whether programmed or live. Nearly every sound you hear, as orchestrated by producers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, is in service of the album’s heartbroken narrative. Not all of the experiments work, such as the near-inexplicable flute on country-disco kiss-off “there is a light,” but generally speaking there is harmony between song, performance and production throughout.
star-crossed is not entirely a numbed-by-relationship grief affair. Sure, on “good wife” or “cherry blossom,” Musgraves is searching for ways to either prove her worth to her soon-to-be-estranged husband or remind him of how good and valuable their partnership is/was. But in the second half, you get a firebrand pronouncement like “breadwinner,” where Musgraves tackles a man’s juxtaposition of parasocial leveraging of and insecurity with his wife’s fame: “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.” Elsewhere, on album highlight “hookup scene,” she decries the emptiness of one-night stands while acknowledging her inability to avoid them. It echoes past songs like “It Is What It Is” from her debut Same Trailer Different Park, but avoids being a rehash.
The best songs here, including “hookup scene,” “keep looking up,” “camera roll” and “justified,” balance romantic grief with defiance and are always forthright, no-bullshit expressions. Musgraves’ break into the pop mainstream with the outstanding Golden Hour did not remove this quality from her music, despite starting inevitable and insipid conversations about how “authentically country” she now is or isn’t. These will only increase with star-crossed being even further removed from the “authentic” sonic palette of the genre—even though you can argue she’s never been more honest than she is here—and they’ll only become more insipid. But think of it this way: If Tammy Wynette was in her performing prime in 2021, you really don’t think she’d be doing some shit like this about her divorce to George Jones? Obviously no one can answer that for certain, but I know what I think.
star-crossed further establishes Kacey Musgraves as a formidable presence in the pop universe without dulling her edges as an artist or erasing the fact that her complexity as a songwriter and performer is rooted in her country music origins. It does not mimic the seeming effortlessness and near-perfection of Golden Hour, because the story this album tells wouldn’t be right for that sound or atmosphere. Instead, star-crossed is incontrovertible evidence of Musgraves’ ambition, which could be far more boundless than even this album’s bold leap suggests.