Every week we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Kacey Musgraves' fifth release, star-crossed.
A week before star-crossed dropped, Kacey Musgraves posted a series of photos to Instagram. By most measures, they were your standard BTS pre-album studio photos: her guitarist tuning before a song, Musgraves leaning over a soundboard that takes up the expanse of a dim room, a warmly lit, acoustically optimized space filled with various drums, a harp, a collection of mics. But in the middle of it all stood a massive canopy bed, covered in transparent drapery and crisp, white linen and surrounded on each end by the type of white rose flower arrangements most commonly reserved for wedding ceremonies. She found the bed on Facebook marketplace and had it hauled in a truck up from Alabama.
“I just wanted something pretty to look at while being stuck in a dark studio for weeks. But, it soon became the physical and visual center of my recording universe,” she wrote in the post’s caption. “It was a soft place to plan our next executions. Somewhere to mourn but forge ahead. A place to practice or nap between takes. A place to attempt singing laying down (doesn’t work). And largely - a symbol. You’ve made your bed. Are you happy laying in it?”
As beautiful as the set-up is, seeing the physical manifestation of home and family amid the structured and public studio space prompts a double take. But listen to star-crossed, made in the wake of her divorce just a year prior to the album’s release, and it's obvious that the bed is just one of countless empty former shells of domesticity present in the studio while Musgraves recorded. But, as Kacey explained, bluntly in her caption and more subtly in her album, none of it — the bed, the love, the suffering — was just decoration and none of it was in vain.
In 2018, Kacey shot her already blooming career into the sun with her fourth album, Golden Hour, winning herself a Grammy and placing country music into the center of mainstream music discourse for the first time in recent collective cultural memory. She’d won over fans around the world, many of whom had once cast off the entire genre of country music. Golden Hour found so much resonance in using simple, beautiful language to chronicle what’s ultimately a simple, beautiful experience: falling in love. What’s most impressive about star-crossed is it manages to approach things as complex and hard to process as divorce, heartbreak and painful spiritual growth with the same simplicity, without compromising any of its impact or intricacy. Even being a country divorce album structured as a three-act Shakespearean tragedy and written largely on a guided psilocybin mushroom trip, it avoids even the suggestion of headiness, fire and brimstone rage, or all-out revenge tracks.
No, Musgraves’ touch is softer than that, even if it lands a bit harder. Heartbreak comes in the form of details like painful pictures on your phone that you can’t bring yourself to delete, regret comes in the small tug you feel to run away after a hookup, and endings are anything but clean and cinematic. As is the case with her lyrics, the album fares best when the production lets Kacey shine, in more tender balladry like “hookup scene” or on the album-closer, a cover of Violeta Parra’s “gracias a la vida,” for example. While the occasional jacked-up and elaborate production flourishes provide appropriate drama — comparatively to the gentler Golden Hour — they sometimes serve as a distraction, like when the chorus of “cherry blossom” kicks in. But more often than not, even a bit of overwhelm is well-timed and feels appropriate, given the subject matter.
By the album’s final act, we hear tragedy’s death grip on Kacey loosen up a bit, and the record departs from straightforward “divorce album” territory altogether. “It’s so bright / But I've been hiding it / There is a light / Inside of me,” she sings with a mix of triumph and pain on the penultimate track “there is a light.” The focus shifts from the heartbreak, and the growth and strength that it gives way to begins to appear in the foreground — not entirely in focus and mixed in among the suffering, but visible nonetheless.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, the Head of Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.