The divorce album has been a staple of country music for about the last century. It’s a powerful statement that you’ve moved into the depressed and alcoholic part of middle age, which is the prime productive period for good old fashioned ballads about misery and killing your ex. It’s pretty hard to mess up, and yet, Kacey Musgraves has managed to mess it up.
This last year has apparently been bad for Musgraves, as it has been for all of us. She divorced her husband, fellow country singer Ruston Kelly. However, determined to make the best of it, Musgraves headed into the studio, taking her usual sound palate and collaborators with her, ready to make her very own divorce album, “Star Crossed.” Now, considering the overwhelming acclaim of Golden Hour, and the general tradition of country divorce albums, I had high hopes for the album. Kacey Musgraves has been a very cheery and bright artist, and while no one would ever wish for something to dampen her spirits, I was interested to see how she would handle darker subject matter.
However, in retrospect, the fact that Musgraves had never really taken on an angry or aggressive tone should have been a red flag. “Star Crossed” is about the nicest and vaguest divorce album on the planet. Kacey is an extremely sharp songwriter, and good at forging incisive lines that never feel brow-beating. And yet, we’re treated to nearly an hour of listless and melancholy reminiscence. While there’s nothing wrong with a sad breakup album, Musgraves seems to have nothing to say about her own personal tragedy, giving the whole affair a vibe of “Quick! Say something!”
Even the angry tracks like “bread-winner” are extremely general talking about “guys like that” who come in to ruin your week. No one individual guy in particular, just like, the vague idea of guys who do nonspecific bad things to the idea of women. This isn’t to say that Musgraves needed to go into any kind of detail, we aren’t owed any kind of insight into her personal life, but in a album framed entirely around her divorce, it seems like a rather critical oversight to not, you know, talk about the divorce.
I don’t want to just drag this album, there’s a more important lesson we might take from this specific type of failure. It might be that not all artists are built for the requisite messy personal album coming from tragedy that famous artists are expected to churn out. I can’t speak to whether Musgraves was personally pressured into making an album about her personal baggage (though it would certainly explain a lot). However, even if no agent, label executive, or fan asked her to make art out of her suffering, Musgraves was doubtlessly influenced by the general cultural expectation that a musician can’t go through personal tragedy without creating an album out of it. Not everyone is cut out for that kind of career move, it’s emotionally taxing and requires a specific type of person (read: a slightly narcissistic person) to be comfortable putting themselves out so completely.
I’m fairly confident Kacey Musgraves will bounce back from this. She’s still obviously very talented, and like I said at the top, country is perhaps the only genre where woman can expect greater success in middle age than they did in their twenties. So here’s hoping she can find a niche that suits a bit better, because Tammy Wynette she is not.