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KACEY TURNS A PAGE

Cosmic vocal tones—literally a cloud of shimmering, baroque, angel-evoking, cathedral-worthy “ooooohs”—dissolve into the plucking of a Spanish gut-string guitar, timeless, yet utterly out of sync with current time. The main vocal—a pristine, honeyed whisper, clipped diction with vowels fluttering—suggests an expansiveness. Of life? Of love? Of those atmospheric Brazilian '60s records that cool mommies and daddies listened to?

If this were a movie, love would be enough
To save us from the darkness that's inside both of us...

Millhouse and martinis, the sacred cocktail of the Mad Men through Halston (sub)urban housewives, Kacey Musgraves perfectly channels the zeitgeist of Phyllis Schafly and The Total Woman response to ’70s feminism with a mood cocktail that suggests Morricone soundtracks and Fellini films on star-crossed (Interscope/MCA Nashville). But these easy-listening, smooth ’n’ silky, slightly Latin-leaning songs are deceptive.

Even when they feel like dance numbers from a Debbie Reynolds or Elvis Presley movie, on closer listen, it’s anything but. The 2019 Album of the Year Grammy winner runs a velvet skewer through every “good woman” trope on her way to a song cycle that lands somewhere between Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, the soul legend’s unpacking of his divorce from Anna Gordy.

On this deeply personal album, Musgraves is fearless in truth-bombing her yearning, expressing how relationships fall to expectations the girl should change—a theme that comes up in no less than four songs. It is also an album that evolves as the songs flutter by. star-crossed offers the stages and truths of surviving Happily Ever After coming apart in your hands. Musgraves swivels through resolve (“Angel”), wanting (“Cherry Blossom”), reckoning (“Breadwinner,” “Easier Said”) and realizing maybe it wasn’t so bad while ruing reality (“Hook Up Scene,” “Camera Roll”) before emerging ultimately on the other side with the 1-2 punch of thriving (“What Doesn’t Kill Me,” “There Is a Light”). She emerges whole and perhaps more aware, philosophical, ready to embrace whatever’s before her.

Let me set the scene:
Two lovers ripped right at the seams
They woke up from the perfect dream
...and then the darkness came

With Same Trailer, Different Park, Musgraves emerged as the winsome small-town truth-teller with the pluck to nail hypocrisy (“Merry Go Round”) and embrace tolerance (“Follow Your Arrow”). Pageant Material gave small towns a broader globalism, smiling and face-palming the existence but also hip-checking Nashville’s business models (“Good Ole Boys Club”). Golden Hour, though, took her sparkle-pony dream-girl ethos to a cosmic place of beauty, romance and serious LGBTQ+ acceptance as she walked a line between Daft Punk and Willie Nelson, toured with Harry Styles and ultimately held the AOTY gramophone in her haute-couture hands.

While star-crossed doesn’t sound radically different, the truth-speaker is more introspective in her musings, almost “notes to self” as she sorts through the doubts, needs and shifts in her world. No matter how ether-light the album sounds, the gravitas that’s entered Musgraves’ ever-sunny realm has created a “Once you know, you can’t not know” certainty that allows her to feel the sadness of what she’s let go of but also to know that what is over needs to be done.

Perhaps that’s why the album closes with what is reputedly Violetta Parra’s “suicide note,” made famous by Mercedes Sosa, “Gracias a La Vida.” The tender ballad of gratitude to what life has given, the sour as well as the sweet, seems like a perfect coda.

Still, this is Musgraves, who drops lines like “And if he comes home stressed from work I could pack him a bowl” in “Good Wife” and “I’ve never been scared of what I wanted to be, and you know me/ I’m not afraid to shine” in the 10cc-evoking “Easier Said Than Done.” She cold-cocks the truth with a velvet glove, unafraid and unflinching about the silly details or her own inner compass.

The plucky calling-out of a certain kind of guy in “Breadwinner” lacerates with a sweeping cloak of sweetness. Framed as advice to others, the song runs through all the aspects of how you’ll be treated, how advantage will be taken. Then she drops into a bridge of self-absolution: “I can sleep at night, knowing I really tried/ I put in the time, but the fault isn’t mine.”

The real turn of the album—beyond the introspection and putting it all down to purge it—is that big-sister passing-it-on witness. “Breadwinner” boasts a chorus closing with “I wish somebody would have told me the truth/ See, he’s never gonna know what to do with a woman like you.”

In classic Kacey fashion, she eschews bitterness and dials up (self)compassion. Stumbling through the tear-stained “Camera Roll,” she balances the perfection of what was with the stark reality of what died. How we torture ourselves has changed, but the torrent of memories lingers.

star-crossed boasts a pair of Tammy Wynette-evoking takes on what it takes to get through: the breezy “Justified,” with its numbing forward motion and staggering “Aha!” moments in the rearview, and the acoustic-guitar-grounded “Hook Up Scene,” which evokes “’Til I Can Make It on My Own” in its balancing of how empty it is when you don’t have an emotional investment.

Still, Musgraves is a Lone Star girl. With Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons” informing the finger-snapped survival advice of “Keep Looking Up,” the corner gets turned. Own what you feel, but don’t get pulled down. While this is clearly a divorce album, “Looking Up” could be the refrain for surviving our world gone mad, the maxim—like “Follow Your Arrow”—that lets us arrive on the other side.

Again teaming with co-producers Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, Musgraves cycles through the phases and stages of her divorce gently. It’s not so dance-driven or cowboy-leaning as previous outings, yet it’s every bit as musically satisfying. Providing a pillow for the tears, the fears and a shallower world that tries to ignore the hard situations, star-crossed offers the rainbow-sparkle-pony girl’s bridge to certified adulthood.

The good news, though, isn’t that she survived her divorce but that she didn’t lose her sense of wonder or ability to tell the truth or enchant with song cycles you can drift through. What happens next is anybody’s guess, but chances are it’ll be worth a listen.

There is a light, it’s so bright
But I’ve been hiding it
There is a light inside of me

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