“If you save yourself for marriage, you’re a bore / you don’t save yourself for marriage, you’re a whore…ible person,” Kacey Musgraves sang in 2013 on ‘Follow Your Arrow’, the penultimate track of her debut album ‘Same Trailer Different Park’. Eight years later and life is no less conflicting – but much has changed. Musgraves got married, for one thing. She wrote an album about the courtship, steeped in honeymoon glow and folky disco, called it ‘Golden Hour’, won four Grammys including 2019 Album of the Year, and strode into the mainstream as a cosmic cowgirl. And then she got divorced.
Divorce broaches no new territory for country music – just ask Tammy Wynette – and those who saw ‘Golden Hour’ as the sign of a country musician softening to pop may be comforted by the prospect of an album forged out of heartache. But while ‘Star-Crossed’, Musgraves’ fourth, recounts her divorce as a ‘modern tragedy’ in three acts, sonically she continues to disregard the tired tussles between country and pop, between authenticity and ‘selling out’. She’s always teased at country’s traditions – how country songs are allowed to sound and what they can say – ever since her debut, maybe even since childhood. “Grew up in the sticks where there ain’t no light, but the stars were big and bright / if they told me no I would always wonder why,” she sings on ‘Keep Lookin’ Up’, the new record’s equivalent to ‘Follow Your Arrow’.
That early track established Musgraves’ progressive cult identity to listeners, but on ‘Keep Lookin’ Up’ she’s re-establishing it to herself. The end of any relationship, not least a marriage, necessitates a recalibration of identity – reminding yourself who you were before you were somebody’s wife. In fact, Musgraves began writing for ‘Star-Crossed’ before her marriage split, with the track ‘Good Wife’. That song now reads as frustration with the constrictive, exhausting expectations of wifedom: bring him coffee in bed, be understanding, be loving, be devoted no matter his wrongs, “try to loosen up and be more fun – yeah, I could be more fun.”
Musgraves may not have initially meant ‘Good Wife’ as an arch statement about womanhood, but other, similarly frank post-divorce songs on the record bolster that stance. ‘Breadwinner’, one of the strongest tracks, is her ‘No Scrubs’ – “he wants your shimmer to make him feel bigger / until he starts feeling insecure” – while towards the end of the album, firmly in the fuck-you stage of heartbreak, she notes that “what doesn’t kill me / better run”.
‘Golden Hour’ possessed a smooth sense of wonderment, which ‘Star-Crossed’ replaces with starker realisations more common to country: love is harder than it looks in the movies, marriage is as susceptible to slight gusts as cherry blossom, “being grown up kinda sucks”. The new album runs a UV torch over ‘Golden Hour’ and amid the rapture reveals deep-rooted concerns about the fragility of happiness and love, written in invisible fluorescent ink.
Despite the Shakespearean title, ‘Star-Crossed’s bard-like introductory track verges closer to La La Land musical theatrics (and indeed, there is a companion film), as classical guitar dissolves into interstellar synths. The new album transmits thoroughly modern heartache. Musgraves compares adulthood to the claustrophobic bewilderment of a VR headset on the convincing ‘Simple Times’, and devotes an entire track to that twenty-first-century facet of despair – the “cruel evidence” of the camera roll, where your ex dwells and where “chronological order ain’t nothin’ but torture”.
Yet for all its modernity, ‘Star-Crossed’ isn’t the eclipsing pop album country fans fear: ‘1989’ this ain’t. Nor is it an archetypal country album, however. There are plenty of restrained, guitar-plucked ballads, but slide guitar retires to the background in favour of moreish pop strums and classical guitar. Like ‘Golden Hour’, the new record ignores country’s parameters, waving in spry top-40 melody and muted indie-folk, distorted bass, mellow synth, and some Ariana Grande ‘Positions’-esque production. All the while, Musgraves’ clear, confident vocals cut through the choppy musical and emotional upheaval.
Unlike ‘Golden Hour’, though, some of the melodies and lyrics plod. ‘If This Was A Movie’ and ‘Angel’ seem laboured and redundant, while the clichés that evaded criticism on ‘Golden Hour’ don’t always get away with it this time. “Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line” just about slips through, but you can’t quite ignore the track-list’s triptych of platitudes: ‘Keep Lookin’ Up’, ‘What Doesn’t Kill Me’, ‘There Is A Light’.
What ‘Star-Crossed’ does best is add a tinge of darkness to ‘Golden Hour’, an album that’s now irrevocably changed, awarded a second, shadier life. And in turn, some gold finds its way to Musgraves’ new, post-divorce world. At the end of ‘Camera Roll’, the pain of old photos gives way to gratitude: “anyway, thanks for all the nights and the days, and everything that you gave, I’ll never erase it.” It’s these more positive moments that work best, poised like butterflies beneath a looming net. Normally art fares better with a little heartache. Kacey Musgraves might’ve just proven that wrong, upending yet another country tradition.