Kacey Musgraves’ highly anticipated new album, star-crossed, opens appropriately enough with the words “Let me set the scene.” From there, the album unfolds cinematically over the spacious and claustrophobic emotional landscapes through which Musgraves has traveled, physically and psychically, since her 2018 album Golden Hour, which won the Grammy for Album of the Year.
In the 15 songs on star-crossed (as well as the 50-minute film of the same name accompanying it, also out Friday), the singer takes listeners through the three acts of what she calls a “modern tragedy”: the end of a loving, but troubled, relationship; the wistfulness of recalling the good parts about the relationship and the struggles with the pain of loss; and the acceptance of the end and moving on. Musgraves’ sighs shimmer spaciously in the opening measure of the title track ahead of a lead guitar line that spirals into a crescendo that mimics the falling apart of the star-crossed lovers. The track is a prologue to the play: “Let me set the scene / Two lovers ripped right at the seams / They woke up from the perfect dream / And then the darkness came.” Young Miranda is now playing Prospero to sing about the fools we mortals are.
In the airy pop song “good wife,” the singer prays that she’ll be a good wife, “cause I know he needs me / even when he’s not right.” She describes her fragility in the relationship and her needs in the J-pop-tinged “cherry blossom”: “I’m a cherry blossom, baby / Don’t let me blow away.” The bright, evocative “simple life” extends the musical theme of “cherry blossom,” its lightness belying the heaviness of looking back to a time before things fell apart.
The centerpiece of the album, “if this was a movie,” unfolds in a halting, languorous fashion, reflecting, with the pacing of a film, how her life would look different if it were a film and if she had control over the setting of the scenes. Would the two lovers fall away from each other after having flown too close to the sun? Would their story be different in the film version of their lives? The exquisite irony in the song is that if life was a movie then the scenes would bathe all the problems of the relationship in a glaring light for all the world — and for the lovers — to see.
By the time we get to the bouncy “breadwinner,” the relationship is falling apart. The man in the song wants both a trophy wife and someone who’s outgoing; when she starts to outperform him, the woman discovers that the man can’t live with such an outgoing woman, and she “wishes someone would have told her.”
The album closes out with a series of songs — “easier said,” “keep lookin’ up,” “what doesn’t kill me,” “there is a light” — in which the singer comes to terms with her post-relationship life. The soul-inflected “easier said” meditates on the difficulty of moving on and loving again: “It ain’t easy to love someone / I’ve been tryin’ and I found out / That it’s easier said than done.” Circling guitar notes introduce “there is a light,” a free-form jazz flight that sounds a bit like what might happen if Musgraves fronted a union of the Fleetwood Mac of the Bare Trees album, Firefall, Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express, and Herbie Mann.
Musgraves wears her emotions on her sleeves on star-crossed, and she’s unafraid to probe the ragged ways of falling in and out of love, clothing it in ethereal strains of sound that convey the enduring struggles between the transcendence of freedom and the immanence of groundedness.