As Kacey Musgraves’ star rose, her marriage began to free-fall. While Musgraves’ and Ruston Kelly’s meet-cute reads like something out of a Southern fairytale (meeting during an open-mic night at Nashville’s famous Bluebird Cafe in 2016, resulting in marriage on the eve of Musgraves’ critically acclaimed Golden Hour), the two divorced in 2020, three years after tying the knot. In addition to the highly publicized nature of their separation, murmurs about what this meant for Musgraves’ music echoed two words: divorce album. As much as Golden Hour was all about Kelly and Musgraves’ love and the rosy outlook on life it harbored, fans had their sneaking suspicions the next album would be all about the fallout. Musgraves now delivers the highly anticipated follow-up, star-crossed, at the one-year mark of their divorce; and in it, she’s traded out the fairytale ending for that of a Greek tragedy.
The love she felt with Kelly carried her last album, and Musgraves now admits “golden hour’s faded black.” The change in feelings is palpable, as star-crossed feels more subdued, with none of the glimmer of her Grammy-winning Golden Hour. Sonically, it’s her least country album, aside from her natural Texas twang; it’s definitely not the pedal-steel-heavy and two-stepping Pageant Material, with star-crossed leaning instead into the modern pop and disco influences that began to coalesce in Golden Hour. While she leaves her full Western get-up at the door, Musgraves continues to bring her Southern sensibilities with her, with a work that reaches to the soul of the country genre, if not the most obvious musical trappings.
Legends of “the brokenhearted country singer” trace Musgraves’ journey. As much as pop music delves into the aftermath of failed relationships, nothing feels like a salve to a broken heart like an old country record. A divorce spurs albums of epic proportions in the world of country. After singing “Stand By Your Man,” Tammy Wynette spelled it out in her 1968 album D-I-V-O-R-C-E. Fellow Texas stoner Willie Nelson traversed both sides of a divorce in his album Phases and Stages. Among all of the covers of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by The Righteous Brothers, it really pierces like a dagger when sang by the woeful Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. Contemporary artists such as Miranda Lambert have kept that spirit alive (with her 2016 album The Weight Of These Wings, in which she grapples with her highly publicized divorce to fellow country artist Blake Shelton), a legacy that Musgraves would likely find very relatable.
The Golden, Texas native hearkens back to these storybook endings in the opening title track, where she sets the scene of a crumbling marriage that was doomed to fail, à la the most famous star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. As she sings in the single “Justified,” “Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line,” and throughout star-crossed we hear her anger, grief, regret, and ultimately joy. As the feelings of sorrow and bliss waver, so does the music: She brings in the pared-down synth sounds from Golden Hour, underlined by simple strumming guitar lines. This all provides a more pensive air, as Musgraves meditates on all the shoulda-coulda-wouldas of her failed relationship.
As much as anger bubbles in “Justified,” grief surfaces in “Good Wife,” as Musgraves begs a higher power to give her the strength to be a good partner, even if it’s not reciprocated. Musgraves questions all the ways she could have made things better in “Angel,” and the ways they could have worked together in “If This Was A Movie,” but as she iterates later in the album, “some things are easier said than done.”
The closest thing to a “High Horse” sequel comes in the spunky “Breadwinner,” where Kacey warns other women about the woes of marrying a man who takes more than he gives. Conflicting emotions follow in “Camera Roll,” as a trip down memory lane comes in the updated version of flipping through old photo albums—scrolling through the chronological history in one’s phone library. Despite all the justified reasons for ending things, there’s a yearning to turn back the clock to the happier moments. Amidst the storm of emotions Musgraves endures throughout star-crossed, a clear story about the complicated nature of ending relationships arises.
Musgraves honors the tried-and-true country tradition of penning songs about the lessons passed down from fathers to their daughters in “Keep Lookin’ Up.” The track sounds like something that would be jammed out over a campfire, under the big and bright Texas stars she refers to in the opening verse, as fingers snap in the background. (It almost makes you want to add, “Deep in the heart of Texas!”) While Musgraves may utilize elements found in modern pop music in earlier tracks, “Keep Lookin’ Up” is star-crossed’s reminder that she is, and always will be, a Texas girl.
Like any good divorce album, Musgraves tells not only the story of the end, but of a new beginning as well. After mulling on what was lost, the album begins to open up as she looks toward the future. In “What Doesn’t Kill Me,” the fire within the singer reignites, all leading up to to the bubbly flute breakdown in groovy “There Is A Light.” It’s a moment of clarity, that despite everything’s she been through, all of the heartache and mourning, there’s still plenty to look forward to on the horizon. She closes the album with a cover of Chilean musician Violeta Parra’s “Gracias A La Vida,” which serves as the final moments of gratitude for life, as with all the trouble it brings, it also brings unbridled joy. Musgraves reminds us and herself that as the sunset moves from the golden hour to dusk, the moment’s radiants color may fade, but a new day pulls closer.