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“If love be rough with you, be rough with love,” says Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Kacey Musgraves’ divorce album, star-crossed, was inspired by the play, but it seldom matches its rough passions. You’d expect a woman with Musgraves’ A-grade songwriting smarts and rebel wit to emerge from her two-year marriage with a quiver full of gut-piercing lines. Interviewed by Rolling Stone, she said she took a “guided mushroom trip” to access buried emotion. But the country pop star famously blew off conservative American radio with lines such as, “Roll up a joint/ I would!” And it sounds more like she reached for her long-term drug of choice to numb her way through the heartbreak… and subsequent songwriting. It suggests the line she heard clearest in Shakespeare’s play was: “Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs.”
Consequently, this record doesn’t find the often-brilliant Musgraves on her sharpest, Dolly Parton-est form. She delivers more platitudes than usual; her melodic shifts often lack their tangier twists. But the sadness and everydayness of her breakup does breathe slowly and honestly through the songs. There is, perhaps, a kind of rebellion in exposing the mundane realities of even the most high-voltage celebrity divorce.
star-crossed opens with 35 seconds of hazily exhaled smoke-ring “ooooooo”s before a Spanish guitar flicks the title track into life. “I signed the papers yesterday/ You came and took your things away… No one’s to blame/ Cos we called all the angels to save us/ But I guess they got lost/ star crossed,” sings Musgraves. From there, we’re into the forgettable R&B of “good wife”, on which Texan Musgraves describes her attempts to be a 21st-century Tammy Wynette and stand by her man: “God help me be a good wife/ Even when he’s not right.” There’s a little retro-psychedelic fun with retro synths around the edges of the track, but little else to engage with. The cheesy synth-pop of Japanophile “cherry blossom” wafts past without adding to the narrative, while “simple life” – also accessorised with East-Asian pentatonic scales – finds the singer whingeing that “being grown-up kinda sucks”.
The story of Musgraves’s romance with lesser-known country singer Ruston Kelly drifts back into focus thanks to the moodier strum of “if this were a movie” (acknowledging “the darkness inside both of us”). On the single “justified”, we finally hear some real anger (“You lied… should have treated me right”). That anger bites, pop-bop-style, on “breadwinner”, which sees Musgraves nail the kind of guy who pretends to admire a successful woman, but really “wants your dinner/ Until he aint hungry anymore… Until he starts feelin’ insecure/ He’s never gonna know what to do/ With a woman like you.” I have many friends who’ve gone through relationships with this type of man, who rarely hear those stories played back to them in pop music. So, although the track has a bouncy-brittleness, I’m glad Musgraves has given voice to the experience.
Melodically, things pick up a lot towards the end of the album. Musgraves delivers modern truths of scrolling through memories you can’t delete on “camera roll”, and on the thoughtfully picked perspective of “hookup scene”. Fingersnaps signal the cowboy boot-stompin’ mood-shift of “keep lookin’ up”, while “there is a light” turns into a gloriously giddy disco-twirl, complete with bongos and a Seventies-purring flute solo. star-crossed ends on a sweet Latin note: a cover of Chilean Violeta Parra’s emotive humanist hymn “Gracias la Vida”, recorded in 1966, the year before Parra died by suicide. Many have read the song as a kind of suicide note, meaning it fits well with Musgraves’ Romeo and Juliet theme. She gives her version a strange, vocodered, Imogen Heap spin that doesn’t entirely work. But then, her fans should all be relieved that she doesn’t sound as sorrow-drowned as Parra. Unlike Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, Musgraves sees “a light at the end of the tunnel”.