Intervention time: star-crossed
Kacey Musgraves, known for her chart-topping songs like “Slow Burn” and “Merry Go ‘Round,” is a competent strummer and a household name. However, in her newest album star-crossed, Musgraves proves she has some progress to make in terms of lyricism and finding her niche.
Her debut album Same Trailer Different Park, and most of her work since then, includes some strong session musicians. But aside from some hammer-ons and thoughtful rhythms on acoustic guitar, Musgraves’ contribution usually consists of lyrical platitudes. The New York Times vaguely compares some of Musgraves’ songs on star-crossed to a retreat into “soft psychedelia,” which follows artists like Sturgill Simpson. However, the characterization seems both confusing and unfair: while Simpson is capable of spacey interludes and plays to the vibe as a musician, Musgraves on star-crossed shoots her best shot from a hiding place behind some synth-pop chords and house beats–ultimately coming up short. More deliberate listeners will find Musgraves’ newest album disappointing because of its overproduction and predictability.
To begin on a more positive note, almost every instrumental on star-crossed shows promise. The dramatic title track features synthed-out choral voices, classical acoustic guitar and beautiful plucked arpeggio strings. Musgraves’ invocation “Let me set the scene…” frames listeners in and gives people strong hopes for the album. But as with almost every track on star-crossed, the hook is misleading. When sophomoric allusions in lyrics like “Did we fly too high/ just to get burned by the sun?” are coupled with a glitz-pop beat, disaster ensues. The song leaves people wondering: did this pop-country star’s chorus just hit the proverbial Icelandic speorg note? More importantly, why?
One can begin to understand this album by recognizing that, from faux-intellectual allusions to aiming for the Instagram crowd, pop-country is a dead brand on most ears. As a case in point, this album listens as though someone heard each song’s well-crafted hook, exclaimed “that’s fire” and threw a drum and bass track on top. Part of a quote from Saving Country Music sums up the perspective: “…surprisingly lacking any of the creative spark or boundary-pushing we’re accustomed to from Musgraves, [star-crossed is] not “bad” as much as it just “is”….”
Songs like “If This Was a Movie..” illustrate Musgraves’ struggles with lyricism as she pairs predictable rhymes and themes with heavy vocal effects. On the track, each metaphor seems to be chosen for its particular hollowness: “Am I the stone in your pocket…or the face in your locket…?” or “I’d be your silver lining,/ not a cloud full of rain….” New listeners might think such iterative writing is a one-off mistake, but they would be mistaken. Most of Musgraves’ work insists on trite, summary poeticism that is frustrating, if not offensive, to avid alt-country listeners and musicians who are pushing the boundaries. As another example of this phenomenon, on the melancholy track “Angel,” a song about self-redemption that follows the album’s theme of a broken relationship, Musgraves returns to the song’s working metaphor at every turn. The opening line, “If I was an angel, I wouldn’t have to try/ so hard to save you/ or show you how to fly,” is accompanied by a single acoustic guitar and sets the tone for the song’s lullaby tempo. It is one of the stronger efforts, but the songwriting still lacks authenticity or roots.
Meanwhile, a bit of redemption on the album comes from more traditional, sparse tracks like “Keep Lookin’ Up.” The song’s lyrics are repetitive, but it is not encumbered by the overwhelming, synthetic qualities found in most of the other tracks. At least on this track, Musgraves has picked out a guitar line and was productive about her writing choices: with lyrics like “I’ve seen fire burning in the sky/ things that I can’t explain,” people do get a sense that perhaps this time she has intended to connect with listeners beyond her typical wheelhouse.
On “There Is a Light,” all of the instrumentals make sense, at least in theory. But the dancebeats? Still entirely unnecessary. Furthermore, the song’s ongoing metaphor about “a light inside of me” is more on-the-nose than many Sunday School songs. When Musgraves alludes to a proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel,” listeners may sigh in relief to realize it is the penultimate track on the album–despite a fine flute solo and some noodling over the chorus.
Finally, the last track on the album, “Gracias a la Vida,” is a cover of Violeta Parra’s original 1966 song. While perhaps a poignant way to close an album about heartbreak and resilience, the musical arrangement of Musgraves’ version is echo-chambered and over-sampled. That being said, including this song is extemporaneous in the context of the rest of the album, and while it does not fit the vibe, it is the most interesting song presented in terms of tones and variety.
Kacey Musgraves’ new album star-crossed is complicated in the most problematic ways possible: self-conscious and deceiving. The album lacks authenticity in its process of getting listeners to buy into tracks with high production quality and glamorous effects, then letting them down lyrically. Hopefully, somewhere Musgraves is currently considering writing a solo acoustic album to set the alt-country universe back in balance.