Go ahead and skip right to the new Kacey Musgraves song called “Breadwinner.” You know you want to. “He wants a breadwinner / He wants your dinner / Until he ain’t hungry anymore,” sings the wily country subversive turned tentative pop star on her fifth album, Star-Crossed, her playfully lethal falsetto punctuating the harshest words, the fizzy soft-rock groove only sharpening the sting. “He wants your shimmer / To make him feel bigger / Until he starts feeling insecure.” Big yikes. Star-Crossed is also, explicitly and for the most part forlornly, a divorce album; I started digging a bomb shelter in my backyard the second I saw “Breadwinner” on the track list. You’ll feel bad later for playing it first. But she forgives you, and her insecure ex-husband, and most importantly herself.
So here we’ve got Kacey Musgraves—a proud native of Golden, Texas, who will not hesitate to smoke up (here she is on her wedding day) or indulge in various psychedelics (she once wrote a song about her mother while “surfing waves of LSD”)—winning the Album of the Year Grammy for 2018’s spacey and splendid Golden Hour (which included the mom-LSD song). Her shocked but not quite Taylor Swift–caliber-disingenuous reaction to this victory—What? What? What?—made for excellent GIF material. The bearded gentleman sitting to her left is her then-husband, fellow country-ish singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly, who inspired Golden Hour’s lovey-doviest and least enjoyable songs. (“Butterflies” gets a little goopy.) Uh-oh, I thought at that moment, as the affable cult artist rose to congratulate his budding-superstar wife and an ever-growing power imbalance loomed between them. That’s quite a shimmer. I felt bad immediately for thinking that, of course; hopefully they both forgive me, too.
Hence “Breadwinner”; hence my bomb shelter. “Here’s what he’ll do / He’ll play it cool / When he hangs out with a woman like you,” Musgraves sings as the song begins, boppy synth-pop chords darting between the words. “Say he ain’t pressed / By all your success / Tell you he’s different than all of the rest.” The perspective here is intriguingly odd: Who is she talking to? Who is she warning? Olivia Rodrigo? What’s old Ruston up to? (Just for journalistic balance, I quite liked Kelly’s radiantly downbeat 2018 album Dying Star, and when I saw him live he did an excellent cover of Wheatus’s “Teenage Dirtbag,” and he’s the only country-ish singer-songwriter I’m aware of who also dabbles in interpretive figure skating.) “Breadwinner” is, by quite a margin, the meanest song on Star-Crossed, but those barbs aside, it’s nowhere near as mean as I’d feared. Musgraves does not much elaborate on the power imbalance at play here; the bridge is a dreamy reverie in which she washes her hands of the whole affair without quite throwing them:
I can sleep at night
Knowing I really tried
I put in the time
But the fault isn’t mine
Wait: This song isn’t as mean as I’d feared? Do I mean hoped? Divorce albums are tough, in terms of critical empathy; country-adjacent divorce albums are super tough. Do you, the impartial and generally pro-love listener, want growth and reconciliation and closure, or do you want fury and recrimination and blood on the tracks? Would you rather listen to a divorce album named Oh Well or Fuck You? The good news (??) is that Star-Crossed is Oh Well a solid 90 percent of the time, the tone wistful and reproachful (she knows the fault is partially hers), and the hazy cosmic pop she perfected on Golden Hour is perfectly suited to this bleary new alone-at-4-a.m. melancholy. “I’ve been to hell and back / Golden hour faded black,” she laments on a muted coffeehouse-folk-via-EDM lope called “What Doesn’t Kill Me,” as in, “What doesn’t kill me better run.” She doesn’t sound pissed, though. Just tired, and ill at ease, and sorry she’s not sorrier.
Musgraves emerged as a primo Nashville disruptor with her 2013 debut Same Trailer Different Park, which peaks with the exquisitely barbed small-town cry for help “Merry Go ’Round,” but endures mostly for the far sunnier live-and-let-live anthem “Follow Your Arrow.” (She beat out Taylor Swift’s Red for the Best Country Album Grammy the following year, and with the refrain “Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls if that’s somethin’ you’re into” beat Swift to a more explicitly inclusive vision of pop music by a few.) On 2015’s gentler and folksier Pageant Material, a fame-rattled Musgraves seemed to dial back on disruption in favor of medium-sassy and throw-pillow-worthy quips like “Mind your own biscuits / And life will be gravy.” Maybe the merry-go-round wasn’t so bad after all.
Then came 2016’s truly splendid and downbeat A Very Kacey Christmas, which I dutifully crank up every December; then came 2018’s Golden Hour, a startling and prismatic pivot inward, skyward, heavenward. It sketched out a wondrous galactic-cowgirl vision of pop stardom; it kicked ass. The electrifying stillness of “Slow Burn” is undefeated; the Banjo Player at the Planetarium sweep of “Oh, What a World” is winsomely starry-eyed. But the very best songs—namely, the disco romp “High Horse” and the delicately annihilating “Space Cowboy” (as in, “You can have your space, cowboy”)—are usually also the meanest.
And now this is happening.
Musgraves and Kelly married in 2017 and announced their split in July 2020; Star-Crossed is explicitly about the medium-ugly aftermath. “I wasn’t going to be a real country artist without at least one divorce under my belt,” she told The New York Times in late August, in between dodging FaceTime requests from Justin Bieber. Musgraves is a big shot now, you see. Or she could be. The more vexing question with this record was whether she’d vie for true Bieber-grade (or Rodrigo-grade) mainstream success, whatever that meant: pop-punk clout chasing? Drake features? Jack Antonoff?
Star-Crossed allegedly has a vague Shakespearean structure (mostly invisible after the moody opener and title track kicks off with the lines, “Let me set the scene / Two lovers ripped right at the seams”) and a glitzy, 50-minute companion movie. But it also feels appealingly human-scaled, and for that matter just human. Backed once again by Golden Hour coproducers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, she further refines a sumptuous but modest country-funk sound (she’d also like you to hear a lot of Sade, though you might hear a little more Bread) that crosses over without getting all sweaty/thirsty about it. She is building out her own universe. The question is whether anyone else can fit in it.
Maybe you were also braced for the song called “Good Wife,” a smooth but stormy rejection of even her more progressive attempt at stifling domesticity: “And if he comes home stressed out I could pack him a bowl / Just let him be himself, don’t try to control.” Musgraves is agonizingly convincing when she sings, “Even when he’s not right / I know he still needs me,” and even more agonizingly unconvincing when she sings, “I know I know I know / That I need him.” That songwriter’s trick works wonders in the opposite emotional direction on the ever-so-slightly faster and hookier and angrier “Justified,” when “You should’ve treated me right” becomes “I should have treated you right.” Musgraves is a razor-sharp lyricist but not an overly clever or flowery one, and if that means she sometimes risks clichés (“Keep Lookin’ Up” is about how you should “keep your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground”; “Easier Said” is about how loving someone is easier said than done), the saving grace is that she’s a razor-sharp singer, too, a mordant wit inherent in her lithe and twangy voice, and a bracing sadness as well.
There are heartbreaking looks back at an unattainable past (see the Tokyo-themed meet-cute of “Cherry Blossom,” oversold somewhat by the koto riff), and there are heartbreaking fantasies about an alternate present. (The breathy and overcast “If This Was a Movie…” is a grower, a depressive daydream with a rom-com script—“And you’d run up the stairs / You’d hold my face / Say we’re being stupid / And we’d fall back into place”—effective less for any coy turn of phrase than for the subtly devastating high note she hits on the line “But it’s not a movie.”) “Hookup Scene”—in which Musgraves reenters the vapid and unsatisfying dating scene and emerges with the thought, “I wish I would have known I didn’t have it so bad”—is like the space-country version of that miraculous viral Twitter thread about Dell Curry’s divorce (just trust me), and no, there’s no line here as vivid as, “You think you wanna be out here cause you not out here.” But once again, her tremulous voice does the heavy lifting, or the heavy wallowing.
Musgraves wallows so hard, in fact, that she occasionally reverts all the way to childhood, or at least adolescence: “Simple Times” is a song about how “being grown-up kinda sucks.” It’s not her best work, but you can’t rightly disagree with her. She brought in Princess Nokia, Victoria Pedretti, and RuPaul’s Drag Race champion Symone for the vintage–mall rat video: That’s the aspiring-pop-star part of this enterprise, one supposes, but Star-Crossed never quite feels like Musgraves is trying to get somewhere else, or trying to be someone else.
But the song on this tracklist I really should’ve braced myself for is “Camera Roll.” It comes right after “Breadwinner,” right after you’ve breathed a sigh of relief. (Right? Right??) The song is spare, hushed, guitar-driven, and exquisitely unbearable, a classic post-breakup tearjerker with a distinctly modern sense of digital detachment and ennui. Musgraves is scrolling through old pictures of her ex on her phone, of course; she should definitely stop doing that, of course.
Ain’t nothing but torture
Scroll too far back, that’s what you get
I don’t wanna see ‘em
But I can’t delete ‘em
It just doesn’t feel right yet
But it’s the last lines that kill me:
Thanks for all the nights and the days
And everything that you gave
I’ll never erase it
Where we look so in love
Before we lost all the sun
And I made you take it
First of all, the “anyway” is crushing. Second of all, ah, geez. My wife’s always on me to take more pictures of us. She’s right. I really oughta do it. One does not generally look to divorce albums for relationship advice—not if any part of you prefers the Fuck You approach to this genre—but Musgraves has proved disruptive in this realm, too. Not that Star-Crossed resolves on a particularly down note: The album ends with her version of the Chilean folk song “Gracias a la Vida,” beautifully sung through a few waves of digital distortion that serve only as distractions but can’t hope to swallow her voice entirely. And right before that is an upbeat beach-boho romp called “There Is a Light” (dig the flute solo) that still gets in one last vague, polite, but unmistakable shot:
Tried not to show it
To make you feel good
Pretended I couldn’t
When you knew that I could
Leave it to Kacey to make Oh Well still kinda sound like Fuck You. She forgives you for doubting her.