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One Good Thing: Kacey Musgraves’s latest album is her messiest — and maybe her best

This album embraces life’s contradictions, even when it’s difficult to do so.

Singer Kacey Musgraves performs onstage at the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards in front of a heart shape outlined by fire.
Her star-crossed effort may not be a country album, but Musgraves takes on the mess of a new phase with grace.
John Shearer/MTV VMAs 2021/Getty Images for MTV/ViacomCBS
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Both the “oh gosh, I just fell in love, and it’s wonderful” album and the “so I just broke up, and fuck my ex” album have long, rich traditions in pop music, but critically beloved country musician Kacey Musgraves has a unique talent for blending the two together.

Her 2018 Golden Hour, a Grammy winner for album of the year, famously charted the beginning of her relationship with and ultimate marriage to singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly. But it also took place in the immediate aftermath of a different relationship, one whose ending gave way to the beginning of something new with Kelly. Musgraves has always been terrific at exploring the emotional contradictions inherent in life, and her ability to see the cyclical nature of life and love made Golden Hour a standout masterpiece.

Her new album, star-crossed, released in September, is messier than Golden Hour, but after several weeks of listening to it, I might prefer the mess. Told in a slightly sweaty, overdetermined three-act structure, the album charts the story of the end of the Musgraves and Kelly marriage, going from the uncertainty of wedded bliss to the slow realization that nothing in this relationship works quite right to the eventual rebirth from the ashes.

And, yeah, there are thousands of albums out there about relationships ending. It’s one of the great themes of music across time. What sets star-crossed apart is the way Musgraves balances the fact that she and Kelly were really, really happy at one point with the sadness she feels right now. The fact that the relationship ended doesn’t erase the happiness she felt, just as that happiness doesn’t mean the relationship wasn’t doomed in some fashion from the beginning.

It’s also really hard to write a break-up album that doesn’t indulge in bitterness. Taylor Swift, our queen of break-up anthems, spent most of her 2012 album Red (arguably her best) sniping about assorted relationships that had ended. Part of the appeal of those songs (“We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together,” “All Too Well,” etc.) is just how vulnerable she lets herself be.

Musgraves doesn’t eschew bitterness entirely — the standout track “breadwinner” strongly suggests a core cause of the end of her marriage was Kelly’s jealousy of Musgraves’s greater level of success. Musgraves is also aware that when a relationship ends, nobody tends to coat themselves in glory. Much of star-crossed features Musgraves examining her own behavior to see if she could have handled things in a way that might not have led to the end of her marriage.

And listen: If Kacey Musgraves were my friend, I would probably listen to all of her ruminating and say, “Kacey, please, no. You’re great. Stop overthinking this.” But it’s the overthinking that makes Musgraves’s music as good as it is. To return to Swift, Musgraves has taken the “80 percent vituperation, 20 percent self-reflection” model of Red and reversed it almost exactly, leading to an album that is thoughtful and surprisingly generous to both parties in her now-ended marriage.

I mentioned above that the album is a bit messy, and I would say the first two-thirds of the album — the “things are great, right? Right???” and “actually no they’re not” parts — are significantly stronger than the “I’m gonna start all over again!” final third. (Spotify streaming stats seem to bear this out; the final four songs on the album have fewer streams than the first 11.) The strain Musgraves undertakes to make the 15 songs fit the album’s three-act structure is evident.

One criticism of the album that some of Musgraves’s fans have leveled against it is that it’s “not country,” whatever that means. They’re more or less right. This is the least country-inflected Musgraves has ever been. But part of what makes Musgraves so exciting as an artist is the way she reaches far and wide for musical influences that she then wraps into the traditional story-song structure of country music.

Golden Hour, for instance, had heavy vibes of ’70s soft rock, like hanging out by a pool in the California sun; star-crossed, in comparison, leans heavily on dominant trends of pop music from the 2010s. There’s a surprising amount of Autotune, and several songs feature shuffling drum loops. Songs like “good wife,” “simple times,” and “justified” all wouldn’t sound that far out of place on modern adult contemporary radio stations. (Weirdly, the album I kept thinking of was Kanye West’s Autotune-heavy 2008 album 808s and Heartbreak. The two albums are very different, but they’re united in a willingness to use sonic exploration to plumb the depths of grief.)

She also incorporates a grand, operatic sweep to several songs. The album opens with the title track, which begins with a hushed chorus, then gives way to a lilting Spanish guitar. It doesn’t sound like a country song, but it doesn’t sound like a modern pop song either. It sounds like the first song in a movie musical, more than anything.

Star-crossed is a trickier, heavier album than Golden Hour. When Musgraves is taking valedictory tours where she plays the hits at the end of her career, I don’t know how many songs from this album will be in the rotation, especially since it works better as an album than as a collection of individual songs. But for those of us who like music that digs into raw, complicated emotions, I suspect this album will always remain a favorite. Musgraves has made more perfect albums than star-crossed, but I’m not sure she’s made a better one.

Star-crossed is available to stream on all digital music platforms and on CD. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.