In the centuries-old Japanese tradition of kintsugi, artists restore broken pottery by gluing the pieces back together with lacquer, which is often dusted or mixed with gold. The resulting aurous veins are meant to highlight the breakage—a celebration that something shattered can become whole again.
Two years ago, Kacey Musgraves’s life was resplendent. Her fourth album, 2018’s Golden Hour, was still riding a wave of near-universal critical acclaim. Sonically, Musgraves had ventured further from country than ever before, and the risk delivered rewards: she became only the second artist (Taylor Swift was the first) to win Album of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards, Academy of Country Music Awards, and the Grammys, where she also won Best Country Song, Best Country Album, and Best Country Solo Performance. Musgraves also embarked on a world tour, made her first Met Gala appearance, and capped off the year with a star-studded Christmas special released on Amazon Prime Video.
But 2020 would prove shattering for the Golden-born star. In July, Musgraves and her husband of nearly three years, musician Ruston Kelly, announced that they had filed for divorce. Their romance had been the stuff of Nashville fairytales, providing much of the inspiration behind Golden Hour and its achingly sweet songs “Butterflies” and “Love Is a Wild Thing.”
In her new album Star-crossed, out September 10, Musgraves doesn’t run away from heartbreak. She examines the pieces and fills in the cracks with glittering guitars and lush, psychedelic soundscapes (a guided mushroom trip helped inspire the album). Much has been made of Musgraves moving away from country and toward pop. But, like Golden Hour, Star-crossed mixes genres and doesn’t commit to any one in particular. Pulling from a range of influences, including Daft Punk and Sufjan Stevens, the album employs vocoders, disco beats, banjos, Spanish guitars, jazz flutes, and Japanese kotos. The result is at times dissonant, contradictory, and imperfect, but then, so is processing grief.
From one song to the next, Musgraves negotiates with herself, assesses the wreckage of her relationship, shifts the blame, wishes things were different, and, ultimately, tries to find a way to piece herself back together. “Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line,” she sings in the airy, melodic “Justified,” the album’s marquee breakup anthem. This is the record scratch after Golden Hour—by turns tragic, wry, and hopeful, it lives in a world where the boxes have been packed, the house is empty, and the dust has just begun to settle.
Musgraves has earned a reputation for being an “axe man” in the studio, unemotionally cutting out the clutter in any given song. That approach is what made Golden Hour so cohesive. On Star-crossed, she ditches that sense of harmony and opts instead for moments of indulgence and discord. Take the album opener, “Star-crossed.” Sung over a spectral chorus of voices, Musgraves is at the scene of a figurative crash, in a daze, watching everything fall apart but unable to stop it. Later, “Cherry Blossom” and “There Is a Light” glimmer and shine, existing alongside the unadorned, mournful track “Hookup Scene” and the gentler, spacious track “If This Was a Movie..” (It actually will be: a film accompanying the album will release on the same day.)
Musgraves is known for sharp, witty lyrics and colorful observations, but this album isn’t centered around clever wordplay. “Good Wife” hitches on awkward lyrics: “And if he comes home stressed out, I could pack him a bowl / Just let him be himself, don’t try to control.” She redeems herself later on “Breadwinner,” a catchy warning to women whose partners are threatened by their success: “He wants a breadwinner / He wants your dinner until / He ain’t hungry anymore . . . He’s never gonna know what to do / With a woman like you.”
On the album’s slower songs, Musgraves’s voice is beautiful and precise like a newly sharpened blade, delivering some of the album’s most piercing songs without much instrumentation behind her. In “Camera Roll,” a stripped-down waltz, she struggles when she stumbles on the photographs left from her relationship, but can’t bring herself to delete them. It’s a bare-bones track, but you can practically hear her heart breaking when she ends the song, “Anyway, thanks / For all the nights and the days / And everything that you gave / I’ll never erase it / There’s one where we look so in love / Before we lost all the sun / And I made you take it.”
Musgraves brought back Golden Hour producers and co-writers Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, who help create magnetic moments in between her words, whether it’s the infectious flute solo on “There Is a Light” or the subtle banjo on the introspective ballad “Easier Said.”
The album is front-loaded with tracks in which Musgraves sings about wishing she’d done things differently, even wishing she could’ve been a less successful person. But toward the end of the album, Musgraves turns a corner—and finishes with a twist. In “What Doesn’t Kill Me” and “There Is a Light,” she’s done shrinking herself for someone else. Musgraves is alone, but determined to shine bright. “There is a light inside of me,” she sings in the titular track, “Try not to show it / To make you feel good . . . Gonna let it shine / ’Cause now I know.” Then, in an unexpected move, the singer shifts the focus away from herself and closes out the album with a cover of Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a la Vida,” a stirring, deceptively simple appreciation of life and all its wonders. It’s the first cover and the first Spanish-language song to appear in a Musgraves album, and she executes it perfectly. With a vocoder and pitch-shifted vocals, she delivers a visceral, operatic finale that crests in the final verses.
Musgraves is a chronicler of her heart. She lets her emotions choose the sound, not the other way around. Where Golden Hour was an album about love, harmonious and cohesive, Star-crossed is fragmented and in conflict with itself, but still a beautiful whole.