The geological formation of a pop album this uniquely anodyne requires some deep backstory and the Kacey Musgraves odyssey is definitely one in 7.8 billion. Here’s a quick version: She was easily the brightest and coolest new voice in country music circa 2013, but her singles were routinely shunned by the gatekeeping misogynists of country radio, so the karmic scales recalibrated themselves in 2019 when her balmy-beautiful fourth album “Golden Hour” won album of the year at the Grammys. But in the background, Musgraves’s marriage to country singer Ruston Kelly was quietly granulating, so now her big follow-up to “Golden Hour” doubles as her divorce opus, and if you wanted a twangy version of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver screaming at each other, sorry about that.
Dry-eyed and coolheaded, “Star-Crossed” finds Musgraves learning vague heartbreak lessons over different types of disco-like patter, the singer playing everything as cool as the music at her back. Emotional ambiguity has been one of her great strengths in the past — on “Golden Hour,” her space-cookie deadpan made uncomplicated lyrics about feeling “happy and sad at the same time” resonate like cosmogonic poetry. It works in fuzzier ways on “Justified,” a pillowy gallop of a song where Musgraves calmly tries to figure out what’ll happen “if I hate you, then I love you, then I change my mind.” That’s a pretty big “if,” no matter how delicately she sings the word. So yes, this album has a clear thematic center, but not an emotional one — and maybe that’s just Musgraves singing her mellow, even-tempered, vaguely stonery, truth-serumy truth.
Instead of grieving a marriage, the best songs here seem to mourn the idea of it. On “Angel,” an arresting voice-and-guitar ballad, Musgraves imagines a heavenly union where she and the ex would “never have to change” — and to help guide the rest of us into this celestial forever, she floats into the song’s refrain on an ascending melody puff: “You’d only get the best of me.” The poignancy isn’t in the timbre of her rising voice. It’s in our knowledge that she’ll have to come back down.
She’ll be fine, though. Whether Musgraves is singing about the “torture” of scrolling through old photos on “Camera Roll,” or going to “hell and back” on “What Doesn’t Kill Me,” her voice remains absent of agony — as if her illusions of happily-ever-after aren’t being shattered so much as aerosoled away. Her unbreakable calm surfaces the album’s secret truism: Just because something is supposed to hurt a certain way doesn’t mean it has to.
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