Album Review – Kacey Musgraves – “Star-Crossed”

When Kacey Musgraves spoke to Zane Lowe of Apple Music 1 about Star-Crossed and she said, “There are certain aspects of this record that sound a little bit more country, I guess than ‘Golden Hour’,” and also told Crack Magazine it had “more of a foot in country,” that was all the validation we needed that Star-Crossed wouldn’t be country at all. No, it’s not just due to her previous album Golden Hour barely qualifying as country either. It’s because her quotes were the exact type of pathology that precedes an artist dropping an album that’s exclusively pop.

What we weren’t really prepared for was how Star-Crossed just wouldn’t be that good no matter how you categorize it. And this is a development that doesn’t just have ramifications that will adversely affect the career of Kacey Musgraves specifically. It will affect country music, since once again this is one of the genre’s most important, creative, and commercially viable women moving on, and leaving a void that will be difficult to impossible to fill.

Star-Crossed comes from the aftermath of Kacey’s marriage to fellow performer and songwriter Ruston Kelly. Said to be fashioned to unfold similar to a Greek tragedy in three acts, the album is tragic for sure, but strains to convey any entertainment value or valuable insight from its efforts. Antiseptic feeling and devoid of soul due to the lack of human touch on the instrumentation, and surprisingly lacking any of the creative spark or boundary-pushing were accustomed to from Musgraves, it’s not “bad” as much as it just “is”—not really stirring any emotions, aside from maybe that “dead inside” feeling you experience at the expiration of a relationship.

Star-Crossed was produced by Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian just like Kacey’s last album Golden Hour, but the approach was fundamentally different in that they didn’t start with a band standing in front of mics in a studio, but the duo sitting with Musgraves in front of a laptop and a MIDI controller, work shopping synth and beat ideas out on a screen to Kacey’s lyric sheets. Star-Crossed really feels like a failure of process. It’s not just a pop record. It’s a synthy electronic beat record throughout, devoid of really any organic interfacing aside from small bursts, and even a strong theme of divorce can’t resuscitate the cold, sterile feeling of many of these songs.

Granted, Musgraves does do a good job diagramming the disillusionment of a relationship, including how women often find inferiority in themselves for faults that ultimately lie with their mates, asking “How can I be a better woman, or wife?” when the real problem is they married a black hole who isn’t prepared emotionally for coupling. That said, nobody could be surprised this would be the outcome of a relationship with Ruston Kelley after listen to his music. It is so steeped in the dark and disturbed, it’s like the Faces of Death of Americana.

But instead of commiserating with Kacey Musgraves through her music in a way that makes you either reminisce on a failed relationship or perhaps helps you through a current one by communicating that you’re not alone—shepherding you through the healing process—Star-Crossed is just too literal, too specific, too detailed to have it morph to fit your world. Instead of helping you through the bad times, it just sort of reminds you of them in a way that’s a drag, while the dour approach of the music aids and abets this downer mood.

Any time you bring up a record like this with an artist that is exiting country music, you invariably get the “Oh, you just don’t like it because it’s not country.” But that’s not really what’s being expressed here. Yes, it’s a shame Kacey Musgrves can no longer be counted as a country artist, but irrespective of genre, Star-Crossed is just too dry, and strangely unimaginative to resonate regardless of genre, and you’re seeing this reflected in other reviews and public discussion.

For example, with Golden Hour, the amount of frothing, hyperventilating applause for the effort was outright ludicrous, with numerous outlets literally declaring the record the best of the entire calendar year in March, much of it driven by voices outside of country music who love to celebrate Musgraves as someone helping to subvert what they consider a conservative enclave in popular culture. Conversely, Star-Crossed is receiving something you almost never see in popular music—mixed to even negative reviews, at least outside the US where critics are actually allowed to speak the truth.

The Guardian says, “The bliss of Musgraves’ Grammy-winning ‘Golden Hour’ sours on this follow-up, with a breakup narrative that is a little too tidy.” The Independent says the album, “doesn’t show singer at her sharpest.” Even Rolling Stone despite being complimentary, also called it “mildly disappointing,” which probably puts it best. But most tellingly, you aren’t seeing the flowery think pieces expressing how Kacey Musgraves is saving the entire world with Star-Crossed, they’re just doing what they can to say nice things about an artist they like through clenched teeth.

It’s also not like there aren’t some decent offerings in the 15 tracks. The early singe “Justified” is a fine selection for pop and AAA radio. “There Is A Light” moves a little bit with some inspired flute playing, finally giving this otherwise muted album some vitality at the 15th track position. And not intended as a backhanded compliment, but there’s little that’s truly “bad” on this record when considered it as pop. It’s just not expressive enough to stand out, or hold your attention.

Even when you have a cool moment like the final track “Gracias a la Vida,” Fitchuk and Tashian just can’t help but screw with the vocal signal at the end, making the track descend into a mess, bleeding the soul out of the performance, one set of 1’s and 0’s at a time. Making this album their little sonic experiment by running Musgraves through Autotune filters isn’t “disrupting genre norms in country.” It’s just making this record sound like everything else out there in popular music.

And ultimately, what the release of Star-Crossed means is that once again a woman in country music that has amassed major award show hardware and media attention (aside from radio) is now moving on with the genre having nothing to show for the investment. Yes, country music has a serious concern with supporting and developing female talent. But retention is perhaps the biggest worry, while being more the fault of the artist than the genre.

There have been seven total CMA wins—including New Artist of the Year, Song of the Year, Album of the Year, and Female Vocalist of the Year—and 21 total CMA nominations of Kacey Musgraves over her country career, not to mention four ACM’s and 16 nominations there, and six Grammy Award wins. That is a lot of hardware for an artist that just released a pop record, and may never release a country one again.

Similar to Taylor Swift, as soon as Kacey reached a certain level of achievement, she moved on, and country music has nothing to show for it, aside for the guarantee of more think pieces wondering where all the women in country are. You can’t say Kacey was chased away, irrespective of radio, which she never really tried to court in recent years. 46 nominations and 17 wins over an eight-year span is an incredible commitment from country music.

Golden Hour won the super-fecta of awards—CMA, ACM, and Grammy for Best Album, and the Grammy for all-genre Album of the Year. At the time, it was the strong songs on the album such as “Rainbow” and “Butterflies” that hid an otherwise mild production effort by Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian. Receiving such high praise for the last installment, there was no need to question their approach. There was validation to double down on it, and that is what has resulted in a letdown from Star-Crossed.

And now we must consider Kacey Musgraves a pop artist. And with the performance on Star-Crossed, Kacey Musgraves very well might find herself as a small fish in a very big sea. Some country purists will applaud this development of Musgraves moving on, and profess Kacey was never country. But whether it was the songwriting of her breakout single “Merry Go ‘Round,” or the kitsch of her first couple of records that made country music cool to many, Kacey Musgraves was a critically important artist. But country or not, there’s just not much critically important to Star-Crossed.

3.5/10

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