On Kacey Musgraves' divorce album, a rising pop star prioritizes recovery over vengeance.
The wedding video for Kacey Musgraves is still available online.
The six-minute mini-movie, set to the Weepies' "Gotta Have You," lovingly depicts Musgraves' 2017 nuptials in all their artisanal farmhouse glory: Here she is in her white gown, nuzzling a flower-draped horse; here is her soon-to-be husband, fellow musician Ruston Kelly, pounding out his vows on an antique typewriter.
It's all very nice and joyful, while the video is tinged with the phantom pain of what's to come — barely a year after Musgraves dissolved the marriage that inspired her Grammy-winning 2018 album, "Golden Hour."
There are numerous juicy divorce records in country music history: Willie Nelson's "Phases and Stages," Tammy Wynette's "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," Miranda Lambert's "The Weight of These Wings." However, Musgraves' baffling new album, "Star-Crossed," captures the 33-year-old at a crossroads — less a straightforward country artist than a slippery pop star in the making. Thus, "Star-Crossed," which chronicles the breakdown of her relationship with Kelly, invites a different kind of scrutiny; it's the kind of album a self-renewing artist writes to deflect attention away from the evidence of who she used to be.
“There is a light within me,” she sings near the album's conclusion. The album is divided into three acts: falling in love, falling out of love, and moving on. “There was a glimmer of uncertainty / But, sweetheart, it will never go away.”
Musgraves, who grew up in rural Texas, has been vocal about her reservations about tradition — and the prescribed roles women are supposed to perform in life and art — since she left Nashville nearly a decade ago. The exquisite and emotional "Golden Hour," however, with its gentle disco grooves and softly psychedelic textures, dramatically reframed Musgraves' career; she was soon performing at Coachella, touring with Harry Styles, and cutting duets with Lana Del Rey and Troye Sivan.
On the sweet, dreamy "Star-Crossed," she reunites with the producers of "Golden Hour," Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, for a collaborative release from MCA Nashville and Interscope. The tracks are a mix of acoustic guitars and glassy synths; "Breadwinner" has a late-'90s TLC/Child Destiny's beat, while "There Is a Light" features a jazzy flute solo.
And she's certainly following a pop playbook in terms of distribution, with an accompanying short film (a la Beyoncé's "Lemonade") and an MTV Video Music Awards performance slated for Sunday. Musgraves is promoting the idea on social media that her breakup album is ideal for sobbing your eyes out — a millennial-friendly counterpart, say, of Olivia Rodrigo's cathartic Gen Z melodrama.
Nonetheless, "Star-Crossed" is a less emotionally charged encounter than the blissed-out "Golden Hour," which nearly vibrated with emotion.
Perhaps that is because her marriage ended gently, rather than with someone drunkenly riding a lawnmower into town. The singer has stated in interviews that she and Kelly just fell out of step — that their "season shifted," as she told Rolling Stone. And she occasionally captures that small-scale grief, as on "Camera Roll," about resisting the impulse to look through the photos she can't bear to erase, and the lovely "Hookup Scene," about the difficulty of replacing an emotional connection.
The latter is perhaps the most stripped-down track on an album brimming with colorful production flourishes — all the better to appreciate Musgraves' strangely affectless singing voice, which can take on an almost philosophical bent when paired with the proper lyric. (“Breadwinner” is the only track on which she becomes enraged, advising a friend to avoid a guy who "wants your shimmer to make him feel greater.")
Musgraves' writing on "Star-Crossed" is frequently squishier and more prone to cliché than on "Golden Hour" or her earlier albums; on "Simple Times," she fears "falling off the deep end," and on "What Doesn't Kill Me," she describes her trek "to hell and back." On "If This Was a Movie," she sings about how art fails to convey the complexities of real life — but perhaps she's already made that point with songs about a light at the end of the tunnel and a father telling his daughter to keep her feet on the ground.
You may hear these soft landing sites as part of the singer's recent interest in wellness culture; obviously, only a churl would object to her need whatever comfy area she requires to heal from her divorce. Or perhaps it turns out that Musgraves is the rare songwriter who is more effective in a happy mood than in a sad one — the clearest indication yet that she has abandoned country music.