QUESTION TRADITION AND SURVIVE

Norman Warwick reads reviews of Kacey Musgraves´ new album

´Kacey Musgraves writes beautiful, encouraging songs about coming to terms with the aspects of our lives that we can’t control and taking each day in our stride instead´.

When I read that opening sentence above in an on-line review by Craig Jenkins, (left) writing for Vulture, I knew immediately that here was yet another music journo who understands the music he listens to and will prove a trusted guide for those of us who know how much music matters.

According to on-line notes Craig  has written for newspapers like The New York Times and publications such as Billboard and is now the music critic at Vulture and NYmag and has in fact been shortlisted for the Pulitizer Prize for Criticism. I found this review just a couple of days after we had published, on 5th October, an overview of Kacey´s career to date in an article called Kasey Musgraves Seen And Heard, still available in our music archives.

Craig´´ Jenkins´ review, of Kasey Musgraves´ newly released album, Star-Crossed, lived up to the promise of that first sentence at the head of this piece, as he looked at her album, making sense of the lyrics and what they say about Kasey´s feelings at the time of writing them. Like all the great music writers, though, he then also looked at what the codes to live by that we might find in the album, where it is coming from with all the clutter of classification in the recording industry and media and how it will impact on all that.

He reminds us that:

¨Silver Lining the first song on the East Texas singer-songwriter’s 2013 major-label debut Same Trailer Different Park, details all the good that can come from riding out a storm, in life and in nature. Different Park’s Follow Your Arrow, named Song of the Year at the 2014 CMA Awards, is a pep talk for anyone who’s been ostracized for not fitting in. Die Fun, a gorgeous deep cut on 2015’s Pageant Material, wonders aloud why we waste so much time observing restrictive standards for adulthood. Slow Burn, the elegant country-rock opener of 2018’s Golden Hour, Album of the Year winner at the 2019 Grammys, toasts to moving through life at whatever pace feels right. As much as songs like Follow Your Arrow, Space Cowboy, and Biscuits honour a storied tradition of country performers invoking (or inverting) familiar idioms and colloquialisms to share relatable missives about the human condition — think Tammy Wynette’s I Don’t Wanna Play House, Garth Brooks’s Friends In Low Places and Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett’s It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere — Kacey is also in conversation with a certain state of mind. She’s thumbing her nose at all of the church gossips and neighbourhood terrors who get their jollies minding everyone else’s business. Musgraves’s work preaches a life where wemellow out, find true love, and smoke more pot instead of crucifying each other over our differences.

My Week In New York, A week-in-review newsletter from the people who make New York Magazine has had plenty of positive things to say about Star-Crossed, Kasey´s new album. The title is marketed in  as stylized in all lowercase but we have avoided that here simply to adapt it to our layout formats.

´These songs can feel almost tailor-made for challenging the reserved, traditionalist audiences big country hits reach in America, and Pageant Material’s Good Ol’ Boys Club pushes this a step further, taking aim at music-industry executives who carelessly center men’s interests. (That gesture grows pithier when you remember that Kacey’s label had reservations about releasing Follow Your Arrow as a single before it earned her highest placements thus far on Billboard’s Hot 100 and Hot Country Songs charts and tipped savvy mainstream listeners off to her music. Maybe the tedium of appeasing the boys club took a toll, and maybe it was just the tilt in perspective that discovering LSD tends to instigate, but Golden Hour carefully traversed other genres, most rewardingly on the ego-deflating disco jam High Horse, which, alongside Maren Morris and Zedd’s The Middle, earned pop-radio airplay and Grammys prestige. Kacey felt the pivot and the influx of new listeners might rankle someone but didn’t care. ´Some people come with you onto the next one, and some people don’t,´ she told NME in 2019. ´That’s totally cool.´ Anyone angry about Golden Hour’s three hip-hop beats and one crisp disco rhythm was revealing themselves as a fussy purist. Airplay on country radio had been finicky. Branching out was a no-brainer. The slow burn paid off.

In retrospect, Golden Hour was a transitional record signaling a commitment to continue toying with the mechanics of Kacey’s songs and not quite the pop pivot that was advertised. Her fifth album, Star-crossed, released in the summer, suggests the intention was never to leave country behind but rather to devise a more balanced and varied approach to it. The new songs mix and match ideas with a joyful abandon. Cherry Blossom rolls in on a crisp synth-pop groove and twists unexpectedly at the chorus into a driving roots-rock stomp that recalls deliciously zesty late-’80s Fleetwood Mac (left) hits like Little Lies and Everywhere. On Simple Times, Kacey pump-fakes with synths and hip-hop beats that get displaced by acoustic guitars and live drums when the hook lands. The psychedelic-soul grooves of Good Wife suggest that collaborating with the Flaming Lips on last year’s trippy God And The Policeman left an impact; Easier Said sounds like an attempt to nail the washed-out trip-hop of Frank Ocean’s Nikes. She can do straightforward pop; the snarling Breadwinner is a perfect balance of catchy hooks and spiteful lyrics that sneaks in just enough acoustic instruments to fly on country radio and achieves the same kind of shockingly bubbly airing of grievances the Chicks excelled at on 2020’s Gaslighter. Folk songs like Angel and Hookup Scene strip away layers as Kacey proves her pen is just as devastating without grand production flourishes as with.

Star-crossed’s confident expedition across genres is only half the story. It’s a divorce album. Musgraves split last year with singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly, her husband of three years, and Star-crossed charts a trajectory from marital bliss to breaking up and bouncing back. It’s not your average divorce album in that it is less interested in pointing fingers and more anxious to talk listeners through their own experiences with heartbreak. The writing is both personal and selflessly motivational, even-handed (with the notable exceptions of Justified and Breadwinner) in its attribution of blame for the way things turned out and full of advice on girding yourself through a rough patch. In Hookup Scene, she’s advising against making brash moves when romance stalls:

If you’ve got someone to love / And you’ve almost given up / Hold on tight despite the way they make you mad / ’Cause you might not even know that you don’t have it so bad.

Cherry Blossom is the adorable meet-cute:

Early April, you walked up to me / Changing colours on city streets / Petals surrounding us in every shade of pink / We happened quickly, as humans do.

Camera Roll speaks somberly to the disorienting sensation of seeing time flow backwards as you scroll through the pictures in your smartphone:

Don’t go through your camera roll / So much you don’t know / That you forgotten / What a trip, the way you can flip / Through all the good parts of it / I shouldn’t have done it.

The lines here don’t feel as mulled over and deliberate as songs like Slow Burn and Biscuits, cuts that want you to know these are razor-sharp songwriters at work

Star-crossed attempts a more conversational poetry. This is arguably the quality that makes the new album feel the most removed from Kacey’s earlier music, which almost certainly owes at least some of its respect for country songwriting convention to the involvement of Nashville heavy hitters Shane McAnally and Luke Laird. Golden Hour introduced the team of Ian Fitchuk (who played on Sam Hunt’s pop-country classic Montevallo) and Daniel Tashian to Kacey’s work but tapped Laird, McAnally, and the Highwomen’s Natalie Hemby (whose lengthy list of co-writing credits includes at least a dozen Miranda Lambert classics and Pageant Material and Golden Hour gems like Boys Club and Velvet Elvis to help steer songs like Butterflies, Space Cowboy, and Rainbow. 

Star-crossed is the first Kacey album that doesn’t call on any of the writers and producers who assisted with her biggest country-chart hits. That choice seems to have given her the freedom to centre her thoughts and emotions without reaching for the witty turns of phrase that made Follow Your Arrow and Merry Go ’Round pop on country radio to the extent that they did. But this doesn’t make Star-crossed any less of a conversation about the value (or the lack thereof) in honouring American traditions than its predecessors.

The institution of marriage comes under scrutiny here, at least in the Paramount+ film component, directed by photographer and videographer Bardia Zeinali, starring Kacey, RuPaul’s Drag Race season-13 winner Symone, New York rapper Princess Nokia, comic Meg Stalter, and Schitt’s Creek and Best in Show actor Eugene Levy. The Star-crossed film is a fever dream of heists, parties, chase sequences, car crashes, and hospital trips. The core theme is recovery, but the film is also laid out like an acid trip, full of arresting images, slow zooms on liminal spaces, and colourful lights. Kacey and her squad pull a robbery on a wedding-dress shop, leaving the bride-to-be and her Champagne-guzzling mom in tears. Later, as “Good Wife” plays, we’re transported to an auditorium where women in identical white suits and blond wigs are trained to iron clothes and set tables, moving robotically, like Stepford Wives. The film also takes liberties with the music — screwing, stripping, and deconstructing the songs in ways that suggest that a full dub version or Chopstars remix might be a blast — and teases out Star-crossed’s structured narrative as our ride comes apart at the seams and gets reassembled in surgery, coming out stronger, literally wearing body armour (but unfortunately carrying no sword). It’s not quite a sequence of music videos, like Beyoncé’s self-titled and Lemonade films. Some songs get more play time than others, deservedly so in the case of the drag disco party set to There Is A Light. But the stressful drive in the Justified section and the smash-and-grab Simple Times clip (where a wedding-cake topper is sliced in half with a large scimitar, and Symone wrecks a display case with a spiked mace) break out nicely as stand-alone visuals.

The takeaways aren’t just Marriage Sucks or Fuck My Ex, although Star-crossed does stop over in both thought processes in its journey. Kacey doesn’t regret falling in love; she reminisces on the good days as heartily as she stews over the bad ones.

´You go out on a limb, and you risk a fall. You fall, and you dust yourself off andaim for a better landing if it happens again. The point is to keep trying´.

Though Star-crossed is dressed in new sounds and pondering different subject matter, bookending the comfort in cohabitation voiced in songs like  “Pageant Material’s Late To The Party and Die Fun with an honest discussion on what happens when love fails, a knack for a brisk roots-rock shuffle is still the engine driving in the career of Kacey Musgraves’s (left) And her core talking points haven’t changed all that much since Same Trailer Different Park: Question tradition. Do drugs. Love yourself. Survive´.

Meanwhile all music says very similar things.

There’s this thing called the Oscar Curse where the winner of an Academy Award winds up embroiled in a divorce not long after taking home the trophy. Kacey Musgraves lived through the music industry equivalent of this curse. Her third album, Golden Hour, swept all four Grammy categories in which it appeared, including the biggest award of the night, Album of the Year. Musgraves delivered Golden Hour five months after her 2017 marriage to fellow singer/songwriter Ruston Kelly. They filed for divorce a little over a year after her career-making night at the Grammys. Star-Crossed chronicles the dissolution of their marriage, offering a full-blown song cycle detailing the breakdown of the union along with the soul-searching that followed. Musgraves doesn’t spare painful details. If anything, she suffers from a blunt literalism, hitting her targets squarely on the nose. She attempted to be a “Good Wife,” starts pining for Simple Times after she realizes her romance isn’t as it was portrayed in the movies. She begins resenting his layabout behavior, swipes through memories on her phone, gets despondent at the Hookup Scene, then musters strength, discovering a light inside of herself. It’s a familiar story enlivened by details, specifically the depths of her bitterness toward her former lover: she cuts down her ex with

´He wants a breadwinner, he wants your dinner/Until he ain’t hungry anymore/

He wants your shimmer, to make him feel bigger/Until he starts feeling insecure´.

The bite of the words is softened considerably by the pan-genre gloss of the music. Picking up the threads left dangling by Golden HourMusgraves weaves another softly shimmering tapestry of modern and retro-pop, using folk and country as accents, not foundations. It’s a glistening, alluring sound that also is just this side of lulling. Star-Crossed rolls and sways, gaining momentum not from shifts in tempo but rather arrangements; songs are distinguished by how a lack of overdubs suggests intimacy, while layers of harmonies, analog synths, and drum loops convey serenity or strength. Throughout it all, Musgraves is a presence so cooly placid, it’s a bit hard to believe she’d get rattled by a romance or anything else for that matter. Listen closely, it’s evident that Star-Crossed is a quintessential divorce record — the story is laid out quite clearly in its 15 songs — but in a practical sense, the album delivers sophisticated mood music, providing a soothing soundtrack for all manners of quiet domestic activities.

The prime source for this article was a piece written by Craig Jenkins  for Vulture and a piece published on-line by all Music

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