Kacey Musgraves’ fourth studio album, “Star-Crossed”, really picks up halfway, with “Breadwinner”. It’s a fun teardown. On an ostensibly courageous production, Musgraves tells the story of a male partner intimidated by a woman’s success, who nonetheless clings on like a vampire. “He wants your shimmer / to make him feel bigger,” Musgraves sings, “until he starts to feel insecure.”
The relationship is doomed, of course.
Musgraves later retreats into the song to assess his own complicity, or lack thereof: “I can sleep at night knowing that I really tried / It took a long time / But the fault is not mine. ” She sings it with an unexpected dash of shy, Janet Jackson-style sweetness – a perfect smile covering the smirk inside.
âStar-Crossedâ is Musgraves’ divorce album, a cycle of songs about how a relationship deteriorates: not all of a sudden, or in huge chunks, but gradually. It’s full of little memories, good and bad, largely rendered without judgment.
Sometimes in breakups there is no pure enemy – everyone carries a share of the guilt. Throughout “Star-Crossed”, Musgraves maintains this notion, if only to let it ebb. It’s a balance she finds most artfully on âGood Wife,â where she’s torn between thinking the title role is a laudable goal and seeing him as a tragic stock character. “Listen to his problems / Tell him I understand / Touch him so he knows in his heart that he is the only one,” she sings, categorically declaiming the role of an attentive partner without ever sounding too much. engaged.
The first half of the album, before “Breadwinner”, speaks vaguely of hope, especially the hope that the relationship breakdown may in fact be an illusion or at least stop it. The grim “If this was a movie …” writes a familiar fantasy of spontaneous reconciliation that is always a red herring.
But the most powerful and touching part of “Star-Crossed” is its back half, when those illusions have long since faded. The writing of the songs of Musgraves is here more detailed and therefore wilder. The oddly sweet “Hookup Scene” captures the regret of finding yourself thrown into the sea after a relationship ends. The patiently sad âCamera Rollâ details the modern riddle of scrolling through old photos: âChronological order / and nothing but tortureâ.
Where Musgraves really drives the point home, however, is on âThere Is a Light,â a creepy and narcotic dance floor number. A sassy flute hovers above things, and Musgraves’ first verse begins with a vicious quatrain that captures the divide in one word:
I tried not to show it
To make you feel good
I pretended I couldn’t
When you knew that I could
âStar-Crossedâ isn’t quite as elaborate, in terms of production, as âGolden Hour,â which might sound too giddy. (She worked with the same team here: writers and producers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk.) In places it’s almost windy and has a few callbacks to the 1970s and 1980s schlock light – the sadness of the John Hughes movie from “Easier Said.”
These relatively minor production gestures speak loudly because Musgraves comes from a world in which they are seen as more radical than they actually are. But they also resonate so loudly because Musgraves allows them to say things his voice doesn’t.
She never seems to sing to convince you – her voice, of modest scale but deadly precision, connotes the power of unease and exhaustion. It is regret embodied.
Sometimes – and often on this album – Musgraves’ resignation seems to extend to the very act of singing. When it is bubbling, it is calm. When she is calm, she is on the verge of boredom. Sometimes at the end of a relationship you’ve just said all there is to say. To give more would be to give too much.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.