ALBUM REVIEW: Kasey Musgraves, star-crossed
Breakup albums are a medium meant for dramatics. There’s often an airing out of dirty laundry, a switch in tone and/or a vulnerable side of the artist that didn’t pop up before. Bjork’s Vulnicura is a great example, with the help of Arca and The Haxan Cloak, Bjork was able to purge very specific dark emotions over mournful production on tracks like “Stonemilker” or “Black Lake”. 808s & Heartbreaks showed a surprisingly numb and muted version of Kanye West that came as a result of a break-up with fiancee Alexis Phifer and the death of his mother, Dr. Donda West. With a recent divorce from fellow country-singer songwriter Ruston Kelly, I would’ve thought that Kacey Musgraves would come out with a banger of a record. Golden Hour was a good album that came in at the perfect time in American culture. The phrase “golden hour” as associated with taking pictures around sunset, brunch and Instagram filters hit a critical mass around 2018/2019, when the album took home the Grammy for Album of the Year. Personally, I feel like the album is littered with lots of tropes like “get off your high horse” that make the songwriting feel a bit hokey, but didn’t ruin the experience. I thought on a new album, especially one with such serious subject matter, she would leave that method in the dust. That is the opposite case on star-crossed, an album where I sort of like five out of fifteen songs.
I’ll start with those five and then go into attack mode. “star-crossed” is a very on-point and solid opener that also served as the record’s first teaser. I like how she is writing from an omniscient narrator perspective, telling a space-themed tale of two lovers being “torn apart at the seams”. There is also a cool country angle with the twangy guitars and the way she sings “You came and took your things away/And moved out of the home we made/And gave you back your name”. The bass is heavy and Kacey sounds powerful, but immediately after the track ends, we’re treated to four very questionable songs. Later, we get “justified”, a well-produced piece of ‘00s R&B-country that reminds me of a lost Carrie Underwood and Timbaland collaboration. Lyrically, she has conflicting post-breakup emotions, ranging from hate to love to feeling justified, and ultimately having regrets about how she treated the other person. It stands out in the track listing as one of the only tracks that is not oversimplified. “Camera Roll” feels emotionally manipulative in its use of details like “scroll too far back that’s what you get”, slowing down the guitars and using this chord progression that is always used in movies during sad scenes. It feels really forced and out of place, but goddamn I do relate the situation she is laying out, so I can’t knock the track entirely.
“easier said” has a groove that uses lots of synth pads and vibey electronics in combination with guitars to make the listener feel like they’re floating in space, and it does a good job in that regard. Lyrically, the song has as much depth as those wooden blocks moms buy at Marshalls. This is one of several tracks on this album who’s sentiment would go really well on one of the wooden blocks. “Easier said than done!” “Keep your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground!”, “What doesn’t kill me…”. When I hear stuff like this on a record, it feels like a placeholder for more original sentiments to be swapped in. Even when the topics get a little more pointed, the general lyrical content is just so damn basic. On “good wife”, is trying to...be a good wife...by packing her husband a bowl when he gets home? That does sound like a nice thing to do, but the way it’s presented is like “you guys all go to Gov Ball and smoke weed right? Did you peep that weed reference”. Otherwise, I like the instrumental of the song, it’s just the basicness of her language that tanks the track for me. While I’m on the subject of pandering, there is a lot of pandering on this album, maybe even more so than on the new Drake album. What else is cool in the 2020s, Japanese culture? Ok, so let’s throw in some synths that sound vaguely like they’re out of Tokyo, reference Japan and put their most famous tree as the title. “I’m a cherry blossom baby, I don’t want to blow away” could not be more vague, what does that even mean? “Tokyo wasn’t built in a day”? What does that signify to Kacey exactly, as a white woman from Texas?
“simple times” has this boring, emo electronic/acoustic instrumental and is like a gamer-girl anthem? “Wish that I could put this game on pause/Skip this round/Take the headset off/Put my lipgloss on” is the chorus of the song, is anyone fucking with this? Like let me put on my gamer costume to appeal to all the Reddit reply guys that love me. She panders to people who only like her for “High Horse” as well by dropping the inferior “breadwinner”. The chorus sounds nearly identical, and so are the themes of male fragility. All that is to say, I don’t even hate the tune of the track or the fact that it’s “High Horse” 2, it’s the chorus that I can’t take seriously. The bars “He wants a breadwinner/He wants your dinner, ‘til he ain’t hungry anymore/He wants your shimmer to make him feel bigger/Until he starts feeling insecure” sounds like it was generated by an AI. And she has POINTS! She is right, this is a cycle that men go through that is toxic and should be addressed in music like this. But because it’s so silly, no one outside of her core audience is going to find this enlightening. For fans of “High Horse”, at least we get the very good “there is a light”, which is actually pretty engaging from start to finish.
But I have to say, “gracias a la vida” takes the pandering gold medal. Before the backseat critics tell me that this song is super meaningful because she grew up around Spanish-speakers and that I don’t do research and don’t know shit, I know this is a cover. It’s a bad cover and there is no reason a white girl from Texas did a cover of this other than to attempt to crossover to a Latin audience, who again, are a major market in the music industry right now. Bad Bunny was the most streamed artist last year, Kali Uchis broke a shit ton of records with “telepatia”, it’s not a coincidence that all of the sudden Kacey decided to release a Spanish language track. The inclusion of this out of place cover just adds to the growing differences and head spaces of each of these tracks and makes the overall experience feel very focus-grouped. Oh, and there is a bonus pandering to the Tinder crowd on the dreadfully boring, “hookup scene”, which no joke starts with “This hookup scene/Ain’t all that it’s made out to be/You get your fill and leave empty”. This feels like one the algorithm would send your way after a guy or girl on Tinder told you “I’m just not looking for anything serious right now”.
Yeah, I really don’t like this album. It’s greatest crime, in my opinion, is being boring and overly general. She had a real chance here to top Golden Hour with her Lemonade or DONDA, but like Drake, she played it safe and decided to write your next Instagram caption.