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I’m your cherry blossom baby, don’t let me float away
Following up a universally-acclaimed, award-winning album is difficult in normal circumstances — doing so when the breakout record was a golden love story and the next chapter is one of heartbreak and separation is another thing entirely. In the case of Kacey Musgraves, though, the romantic context seems to have little impact on her ability to create a classic album. The sequel to Golden Hour is fraught with more than just industry pressure, but her fifth album Star-Crossed manages to excavate the subject of divorce with the same grace that Musgraves once used to explore love. The country star dubbed the album “a Greek tragedy in three acts,” and across fifteen tracks it hews pretty close to the build-up, conflict, and resolution model.
Writing about her relationship with now ex-husband Ruston Kelly is what catapulted Musgraves from the realm of cult favorite country artist to international superstar, earning her a coveted Album Of The Year award at the Grammys, a lavish amount of praise from critics, and well-deserved recognition from peers like Harry Styles. Operating in that same elevated domain with a potentially downbeat breakup record seemed like a challenging undertaking, but if anyone could take the subject of divorce and make it feel fresh, it’s Kacey. Confronting the subject head-on, the record doesn’t shy away from details or particulars at all, quite the opposite, actually — the record and accompanying film is almost entirely focused on the subject. Weaving together pop, vintage synths, and trace elements of country, Musgraves expands her sound far past the songwriter style of Golden Hour into a full-fledged psychedelic landscape that stands apart from other pop stars and modern country artists alike.
From the woozy, title track intro, Musgraves chose to lead listeners directly into her emotional turmoil with the synth-driven second single, “Justified,” both tracks indicating a major sonic shift from the country-pop of her past. But listening to the record as a whole, the album is more sonically cohesive than these two early releases suggest. The trusting vulnerability of “Good Wife” takes it “back to the beginning,” as Musgraves narrates, already indicating trouble in paradise in what might be a more one-sided relationship than this album’s predecessor suggested. “Cherry Blossom” might be the standout on the whole album, a buzzy, moment-in-time love song that hints at the ephemeral with its namesake symbol. It’s the quintessential example of how Musgraves excels at writing songs filled with mixed emotions (“Happy & Sad,” “Lonely Weekend”), that get at the heart of how relationships actually feel.
On the cinematic “If This Was A Movie,” Kacey muses about the way things could’ve gone right if her life was following a pre-ordained script where love always wins, painting a picture of small gestures that could’ve righted the ship. Similarly, “Hookup Scene” laments letting a good relationship go, noting that the small things that were going wrong don’t hold a candle to how depressing it is to go back to loveless physical flings. “Angel” and “Easier Said” both grapple with how hard love is in the lived-in, day-to-day moments, the former from a self-deprecating folk ballad perspective, the latter channeling Phil Collins-esque ‘80s reverb dripping with regret and occasionally punctuated by acoustic guitar flourishes.
But as much as Musgraves shoulders her fair share of the blame for a love that didn’t last, there’s no mistaking the stomping, nü-feminist classic “Breadwinner,” another standout that skewers the double standards surrounding high-earning women and the men who think they can handle them. “He wants your dinner, until / He ain’t hungry anymore,” Musgraves sings, voice completely neutral while her lyrics simmer with disappointment. On a record that trends toward quieter songs, this is the closest thing to hell hath no fury here, and it’s guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser during Kacey’s upcoming arena tour. Even if Star-Crossed is mostly even-handed when it comes to the breakup that inspired it, this song points to the pressures her career success put on her love story, a dynamic that continues to crop up for powerful women despite recent strides.
The back half of the record ventures into more general moving on themes — the jaunty “Keep Looking Up” is a lesson in resilience and one of the more country-leaning songs here, and “What Doesn’t Kill Me” registers like a throwback ‘90s pop anthem — before Kacey goes rogue into disco acid trip territory on “There Is A Light.” Recalling the left-field electronica of “High Horse” on her last album, this flute-heavy song is further proof that no one genre can ever contain or define Musgraves. But, toward the beginning of the record, she strays off topic just for a moment on the glitchy “Simple Times,” a song nostalgic for the easy intimacy and carefree days of childhood. Without feeling like an outlier, it’s still one of the strongest songs on the project, and proof that from true love, to divorce, to weekday ennui, Kacey excels writing about any topic she wants. Fans will be pleased to hear her recent heartache didn’t crush her, and as much as Star-Crossed feels like a necessary step to process that situation, its strength will likely have listeners looking forward to what’s coming next.
Star-Crossed is out now via Interscope/MCA Nashville. Get it here.