The ambitious new project from Kacey Musgraves may not be a country album, but it is a highly stylized, impeccably produced and sincere creation from an artist who on her last album seemed weary of the genre’s narrow borders.
On the heavily promoted “Star-Crossed,” Musgraves and her team of talented producers have created a detail-rich world that draws on the vibe-inducing influences of dream pop, dance, acoustic indie music and low-fi hip-hop in its resonance, pace and flowing electronic atmospheres. It all creates a pervasively chilled-out and surrealistic feel that will win the effort more than a few awards on the studio end of things come next cycle.
Lyrically, “Star-Crossed” focuses on the breaking down of the relationship between she and ex-husband Ruston Kelly, the source of much of the joy on her previous acclaimed album “Golden Hour.”
“Star-Crossed” begins with Musgraves’ silky voice in an angelic chorus of sliding harmonies sung discreetly by the likes of the Brothers Osborne and Lucie Silvas before opening up into empty space with Spanish guitar musings.
Musgraves then delivers the details of the concept album to unfold in the wide open space of the mix.
“Let me set the scene. Two lovers ripped right at the seams,” Musgraves begins. “They woke up from the perfect dream and then the darkness came.”
That sense of space becomes a well-kept theme, with the creators more than content to let Musgraves’ smooth, pop-friendly voice carve out its own space with little to no instrumentation behind it at times, a la the more recent works of Selena Gomez.
When Musgraves gets to uttering “What have we done?” a dark pop vibe usually associated with an act like The Weeknd begins unraveling, with vocals building the album’s title in classical minor melody, while electronic accents swirl and a phaser punctuates the impeccably cleanly produced mood.
We are then transported by Musgraves back in time, to the beginning of the broken relationship at the album’s core with “The Good Wife.” On it, a slow, head-nodding hip-hop beat softly breaks in with acoustic strumming as Musgraves softly and sweetly sings on the changes she’d been eyeing to be a better wife. A groovy bass line carries the chorus to a funkier destination.
Continuing the outstanding production, “Cherry Blossom” comes in as a lighthearted dance pop track coated in a sonic dusting of constant resonance with Eastern melodic instrumental undertones that serve to reminisce on a moment the couple once shared in Tokyo amid the cherry blossoms.
The song foreshadows the looming conflict: “I’m your cherry blossom, baby/ Don’t let me blow away. I hope you haven’t forgotten/ Tokyo wasn’t built in a day,” Musgraves muses.
Next up, “Simple Times” touches on Musgraves’ building resentment for the inescapable stress of adulthood in a song that sounds like it might have been a mid-2000s indie-pop deep cut from Michelle Branch or Natasha Bedingfield with its minimal acoustic riffing and realistic anecdotal lyrics on life.
Later on, “Camera Roll” will become its nostalgic foil, touching on good memories that become painful due to circumstance.
On “If This Was a Movie,” one of the better moments of prose on the album is delivered in its floating opening verses: “Am I the stone in your pocket/ That’s weighing you down? Or the face in your locket/ That you wear all over town. I’d be your silver lining/ Not a cloud full of rain. And the music would rise up/ When I said your name.”
The song then drops into another smooth low-fi hip-hop type beat amid a dreamlike atmosphere.
The album’s main single, “Justified,” is an extremely catchy, just bouncy enough track that plays into Musgraves’ unsure feelings about the state of her relationship. Over a steady bass line and swelling abstract atmospheres, its pleasantly rolling phrases offer:
“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. If I need just a little. More time to deal with the fact. That you should have treated me right. Then I’m more than just a little justified.”
The melancholy guitar returns on “Angel,” tapping into a minor melodic progression, the same type of which serves to enhance some of the more emotional moments on the album. At this juncture, Musgraves grapples with the realization that something has to give on one side or the other.
The affair becomes decidedly cutting on “Breadwinner,” which sports a more instrumentally upbeat groove that brings forth the indictment of a man she feels knows all too well how to take advantage of a partner’s success.
Musgraves and company draw things back in tone a bit on “Easier Said,” an uber-chill, airy slow jam that meditates abstractly on the difference between words and actions.
“Hookup Scene” is an acoustic-only ballad that reflects on Musgraves’ regrets.
“Keep Lookin Up” begins the final run of the album, the four songs in which Musgraves begins to gain a measure of peace and understanding about her recent experiences.
The song carries the subtle rhythmic gallop of America’s “Horse With No Name,” calling on fatherly advice to cope with the challenges presented by her relationship in a song that ventures close but not quite into folk music territory.
The catharsis continues to build on “There is a Light,” which pairs circular acoustic riffing with muted drums before snapping into an almost discotheque beat complete with a flute solo and bongos.
In an equally if not more unexpected finale, Musgraves sings amid the fuzz of an antique radio or record player in Spanish on “Gracias a la Vida.”
It marks the conclusion of a quite open and personal effort from Musgraves in terms of subject matter and a stellar effort from those working behind the scenes to bring a vision to life.
The album was released with a companion short film of the same name, which can be streamed on Paramount+.