The Beauty of the Divorce Album: A Review of Kacey Musgraves’ star-crossed

The first time I listened to Kacey Musgraves, I was drowning out my droning AP World History teacher, sophomore year of high school. I had no clue who she was; I had just seen a playlist called “country music gives me butterflies” on which she was featured. Listening to Golden Hour in that windowless classroom was almost a spiritual experience—I felt so incredibly seen by her lyrics and her beautiful, unobtrusive voice. I could say the very same about the first time I heard Pageant Material and Same Trailer Different Park (my favorite album of hers). So, all of this being said, I was positively buzzing when I saw on Instagram that a new album was coming: star-crossed. I knew I could count on a divorce album, which is a project written after an artist has gone through a separation about that separation. They are pivotal to Nashville and the world of country music. I have a soft spot for divorce albums—there’s always a good mix of sadness, anger, and wisdom (my all-time favorite of this niche genre is The Chicks’ Gaslighter (which I highly recommend to anyone). I knew Kacey would be going through it on this album, and I was very excited to experience it all with her.

Listening to the opening track, also the album’s namesake, it was very obvious that, firstly, Golden Hour was a turning point in Musgraves’ career, and secondly, that this album would not be like her earlier works. You’re introduced to the album with soft vocalizations that are followed by a melancholy riff on a classical guitar, and then Musgraves singing “let me set the scene…” This opening song characterizes the rest of the album beautifully; it’s balanced between a sort of synth-pop atmospheric vibe and mournful, minor-key melodies, almost all played on a classical guitar. Drama, heartbreak, and resilience are woven into songs as delicately as Musgraves sings their lyrics. From a personal standpoint, I was not drawn into the thick of things until about halfway through the album—I’m not the biggest fan of poppy, autotune-heavy tracks, although I didn’t dislike any of these songs.

I found “good wife” and “angel” to be incredibly interesting; I viewed them as the sequels to “Wonder Woman,” a track off of Golden Hour, wherein Musgraves quite plainly says “Baby I ain’t Wonder Woman… don’t you know I’m only human? And if I let you down I don’t mean to.” While innocent enough in 2018, listened to now, the song is a clear sign of conflict between her and her ex-husband, country music star Ruston Kelly (the pair married in October 2017 and filed for divorce in July 2020). The themes of “good wife” and “angel” are similar; “angel” asserts that if Musgraves were an angel, neither she nor her partner would have to change their ways, she would simply be good enough for the both of them, never being bothered and always ready to smooth things over. “Good wife” is a powerful, punching prayer, asking God for strength to be a good wife, and all that entails. Autotune plays a major role in this song, but by my third or fourth listen, I found I didn’t mind it. Maybe there’s a connection to be drawn between the artificiality of Musgraves’ voice in this song and what she’s asking for.

The kind of drama present in this photo is also present in “star-crossed”

As the album progresses, we move with Musgraves into a place as close as the record comes to anger. With songs like “justified” and “breadwinner,” it’s clear that no one can be the bigger person all the time—there will always be some hurt feelings lying around. “justified” is defensive and demanding, but only ever demanding that her feelings and her coping strategies be respected. It’s both argumentative and relenting; at the end of the bridge she admits that there was blame to share. “breadwinner,” on the other hand, doesn’t give into the opposing party once, and what’s unique about this song is that it is not just about Kelly, but rather acts as a “stay-away” warning to powerful, light-giving women everywhere. It revolves around a well-established fact in the world of “progressive” heteronormativity: men desire and revere powerful, successful women, but only up until a certain point. They want a breadwinner “until they start feeling insecure,” at which point they want to resume top dog status. This song has almost double the streams of most other tracks on the album, and it’s obvious why–the driving, fast-paced melody and lyrics make it incredibly catchy, and like many Kacey songs, it’s an apt description of something not typically found in music.

Some bread! Such as is referred to in “breadwinner.”

My favorite song is “camera roll,” an ode to memories long gone, picture-perfect moments that shouldn’t be dwelled on. But, sometimes dwelling can’t be helped when the photos are at your fingertips. Pictures from years ago truly are “a place not to go when I’m alone, I’ll just feel bad later.” This song is gentle, pared-down, and incredibly honest; Musgraves doesn’t want to delete these pictures. She may be separated from the memories by legal documents and time, but it “just doesn’t feel right, not yet.” This is the murky side of a breakup, all the good times that you can’t help but miss.

It’s inaccurate to simply call star-crossed a divorce album. These songs are mindful, spiteful, joyful, and sorrowful. They reflect Musgraves’ refusal to be boxed into just one genre, instead making leaps and bounds all around every musical sphere. The lyrics are reflective, inspiring, empowering, and relatable. Every song is deeply nuanced, and the complicated nature of human relationships is met head-on. I can’t say I’ll listen to every song in my free time, and it was a bit too poppy for my taste (I kept wishing for a banjo to show up), but what I’ve always loved most about Kacey Musgraves’ music is the clever, thoughtful songwriting. That quality is undeniably center-stage in star-crossed. This music is worth your time, and is best enjoyed with an open but analytical mind. Happy listening!

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