“Do we really have to grow up?” Kacey Musgraves asked on 2015’s Pageant Material, the last time the singer-songwriter was staring down impossible expectations. Back then she was figuring out where to go next after her standard-setting 2013 debut Same Trailer Different Park, which established the blueprint for daring millennial country storytelling.
On 2018’s Golden Hour Musgraves proved just how effortlessly an artist can mature and have fun at the same time. Golden Hour was a Grammy-winning rodeo-zen opus that set her witty wordplay to a blissed-out blend of banjos and vocoder, cementing the Texas traditionalist as a sui generis auteur as well as an avatar for the sonic and cultural boundary-crossing possibilities of contemporary country.
Thanks to that album’s artistic, commercial and critical success, Musgraves is once again facing outsized pressure. So she’s returned to her Peter Pan question from 2015, and she doesn’t like the answer one bit: “Being grown up kind of sucks,” she sings on “Simple Times,” the most infectious and convincing song on Star-Crossed, her consistently compelling, admirably idiosyncratic yet mildly disappointing latest album. The record nudges the galactic disco-cowboy country-pop of Golden Hour a bit further. Her first collection with zero Nashville co-writers not named Ian Fitchuk or Daniel Tashian barely has any banjo; It does, however, have loads of expensive-sounding synths, a bonkers flute solo and a Spanish-language cover of a song by Chilean folk legend Violeta Parra.
Musgraves uses a loose Romeo and Juliet premise to tell one of the oldest stories in country music: the tale of her divorce from fellow singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly, who’d inspired Golden Hour. Several songs cycle through the many stages of post break-up grief. There’s “Breadwinner,” a “High Horse”-reminiscent disco-ball Dolly send-up that contains an entire break-up album worth of venom. Or “Camera Roll,” which finds Musgraves channeling Jackson Browne, looking through some photographs she found inside her phone.
Just like the stick-on tears and handkerchief merch being sold to accompany the album’s rollout, it’s hard to shake the feeling throughout Star-Crossed that Musgraves feels as though she was supposed to make a heart-wrenching divorce record. Thankfully, she’s smarter than that and the best moments here put her own personalized spin on the well-worn cliches of the standard big-budget post-break-up purge-fest.
The dramatic title-track introduction and heart-split-in-half album cover are clever misdirections on a record that’s most moving when it’s not forcing any heart-on-the-page catharsis and instead leaning on what Musgraves has always done best: documenting the terrifying, numbing messiness of mixed emotions. Take the chorus of “Justified”: “If I cry just a little/And then laugh in the middle/If I hate you/Then I love you/Then I change my mind.” Or “Cherry Blossom,” a cautious reflection on falling in love after knowing it didn’t work out.
Most heartbreaking is the alienating disconnection that defines so much of Star-Crossed: Musgraves drapes her detachment in Nintendo nostalgia and Super Mario kitsch on “Simple Times,” which compares adulthood to a video-game simulation. By the next track, “If This Was a Movie..,” she’s pondering how her relationship might’ve turned out if it had been in the hands of Hollywood. By the time Musgraves reaches the third act, she’s moved on with a shrugging gratitude that recalls a line she sang on her first album: “It is what it is/’Till it ain’t anymore.” Her hard-won existential realism feels like a victory. Now, on to the next chapter.