“Let me set the scene,” coos Kacey Musgraves invitingly on the opening line of star-crossed, her new album that you don’t so much listen to as float through.
If its predecessor, 2018’s Grammy-winning Golden Hour, was an examination of Musgraves’ falling in love after heartbreak, the dreamy, ethereal star-crossed serves as a sequel to that love’s demise and the heartache it brings as she chronicles the breakup of her three-year marriage to Ruston Kelly.
Musgraves told Rolling Stone the album is in three-acts, inspired by Greek tragedies. However, the most obvious reference is not to ancient mythology (though Icarus comes to mind during the title track), but to those most famous of all star-crossed lovers: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Thankfully, unlike in that play, Musgraves and Kelly both survive, even if their love doesn’t.
Golden Hour felt revelatory, especially given the artistic leaps it took from Musgraves’ previous efforts — and it’s a good sign that Musgraves enlisted the same pair, Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, that guided and co-wrote Golden Hour with her to step once more into complicated affairs of the heart, even if the results don’t quite live up to that lofty set.
The concept album, released through a new partnership between Universal Music Group Nashville and Interscope and meant to be finished in order, glides on gossamer wings, full of acoustic guitars and subtle synthesizers, lulling the listener into a woozy, seductive state. On the best songs, Musgraves’ confessions feel cozily intimate, like stream-of-consciousness journal entries or a cloistered coffee date with a BFF, while other tracks slide into hyper-self-awareness that feels a little too labored, but star-crossed is a 47-minute journey that’s certainly still worth taking.
Here is an early ranking of every song on Musgraves’ most personal album to date:
15. “Gracias A La Vida”
Sliding into the last post slot because the album closer is a cover — the only non-original on the set — of Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa’s classic ballad. With effects that make it crackle like a well-worn vinyl album playing on an old Victrola, Musgraves’ take serves as a lovely note of gratitude to end the album on.
14. “Easier Said”
With an atmospheric, sloping ‘80s synch click track redolent of George Michael and lovely acoustic guitar, “Easier Said” is a straightforward conversational track about realizing that sometimes love is much harder work than it seems like it should be.
Musgraves looks back on a romance where so many things went wrong, including duplicity and cheating, and determines her reactions and actions, which run the gamut, are “justified,” given the way she was treated.“Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line,” she sings in the mid-tempo track.
12. “What Doesn’t Kill Me”
She may sound sounds sweet on this jaunty tune, but Musgraves bares her teeth on the grittiest lyric on the album, warning “You’re going to feel me when I’m done,” as she advises her antagonist, “Better run, better run.” “Golden hour faded black,” she sings, referencing her previous album, which was about falling in love with Kelly. Simultaneously menacing and uplifting.
11. “Cherry Blossom”
Though the light, airy synthesized track, complete with Musgraves voice run through a slight vocal effect, sounds carefree, there’s an underlying current that someone had better heed her warning to hold on, lest she disappear. “ “I’m a cherry blossom baby,” she sweetly sings, “Don’t let me blow away.”
10. “Simple Times”
“Being grown-up kind of sucks,” Musgraves sings, in this swaying, finger-snapping mid-tempo track where she longs for a return to simple times from her youth, whether it be a Friday afternoon trip to the 7-11 or when she used to “kick it at the mall as if there’s nothing wrong.” Her adult troubles are already weighing her down as she nostalgically yearns for a less-complicated past.
9. “Camera Roll”
One of the more literal songs on the album, about not looking back on your camera to see photos of happier times that you don’t want to see, but can’t yet delete. “I should know it’s a place not to go when I’m alone,” Musgraves sings. But like many of the songs, there’s hidden sorrow lurking behind even the deceptively prettiest of snaps, as Musgraves notes: “There’s one were we look so in love before we lost all the sun.” Worth nothing that it may be the first song to ever rhyme “chronological order” with “torture.”
One of the album’s most biting tracks comes wrapped in a slight disco beat and frothy, bouncy melody, serving as a cautionary tale about a man who says he’s not threatened by a woman who’s a breadwinner — but not only is he threatened, he’s also willing to take advantage of all the opportunities. “He wants your dinner until he ain’t hungry anymore/ He wants your sugar to make him feel bigger until he starts to feeling insecure,” Musgraves sings.
7. “Keep Lookin’ Up”
Star-crossed’s equivalent of Golden Hour‘s “Rainbow,” this uptempo charmer, set to a lilting melody, sets the scene for the last third of the album — as Musgraves remembers her father telling her to always keep looking up and to remember that good times are coming, no matter how dark the storm clouds.
6. “There Is a Light”
The closest star-crossed comes to a straight-ahead banger — plenty of remixes no doubt await — this penultimate track finds Musgraves celebrating (with flute solos!) that she has come out the other side, with the light inside her still shining and undiminished. The spoken passage recalls ‘’80s Madonna crossed with a self-help mantra. Sure to be a concert fave, just like “High Horse,” it’s a bonafide twirler.
5. “If This Was a Movie..”
One of the album’s dreamiest tunes both lyrically and sonically, Musgraves wishes that life were a movie where “love would be enough to save us from the darkness that’s inside both of us” and a time when the car coming up the drive leads to a sweet lovers’ reunion. The retro ‘90s synths and undulating beat add to the gauzy feel.
The album opener is a gorgeous welcome to spend some private time with Musgraves. Bolstered by flamenco guitar, she evokes Icarus, asking “Did we fly too high just to get burned by the sun?” The cinematic curtain raiser-serves as a prologue to the trip through her past she is taking us on.
3. “Hookup Scene”
As Musgraves reenters the dating world, she laments the shallowness of the singles scene and longs for what she’s lost. Her voice, plaintive over a folky finger-plucked guitar figure, is beyond wistful as she delivers this cautionary tale, reminding the listener to hold on tight to their love — because the grass isn’t always greener. “I wish I would have known we didn’t have it so bad,” she sings in this layered beauty, quietly shattering in her willingness to accept a horrible situation over being alone.
2. “Good Wife”
One of star-crossed’s saddest songs. Set to a gentle, soulful beat, the thoroughly modern Musgraves lists the ways she thinks she could be a better, more supportive wife, relying on traditional tropes from decades gone by — though she updates a few of the ideas. “If he comes home stressed out, I could pack him a bowl,” she sweeting suggests. “I know he still needs me… and I know, I know, I know I need him,” she sings.
Musgraves seldom expresses anger for what she’s gone through. Instead, the dominant emotion is regret — and no song captures it more beautifully than “Angel,” which treads the same theme as “Good Wife,” but is even more sorrowful. On the lightly orchestrated guitar track, she wishes she could be an angel. “You’d only get the best of me, I’d pull you out of the darkness,” she sings, adding “I’d never have to change,” though it is painfully clear that despite her desires to keep her lover safe, something has to change and it’s likely her.