It’s a dreary, cloudy afternoon in New Haven. It’s been a dreary, cloudy two years for Kacey Musgraves, who emerged from a three-year marriage in 2020 convinced it was doomed from the start. But her new album Star-Crossed, which arrived last week, three years after her smash Golden Hour, presents a bright and wistful alternative.
The internet hopped on Star-Crossed and immediately labeled it as heartbreaking and a 180 from Golden Hour, which was distinctly not sad and filled with roaring, positive melodies.
From the first track, yeah, maybe. Musgraves opens the album with a totally Romeo-and-Juliet-esque, atmospheric scene. She sings that “No one’s to blame cause we called all the angels to save us… / but I guess they got lost / star-crossed,” which is almost as dramatic as it is depressing, except actually it’s more dramatic than it is anything else.
What is Kacey Musgraves if not dramatic? Recall “Oh What A World” on Golden Hour, when she couldn’t stop saying “These are real things” as she referred to plants. And then there was “Space Cowboy,” a grandiose narrative in which she told a lover “You can have your space, cowboy,” waiting for her listeners to realize the comma was there (I wish I could’ve been in the writers’ room then to watch them all crack themselves up over their genius). Anyway, Golden Hour proved such a strangely beautiful album because these proclamations, which all felt so awkwardly big, were placed against an album about the beauty of the world around her, in all its simple glory. She often described nature plainly, but with a tone of wonder.
So where does that leave Musgraves now? Post-divorce, she’s angry and sad and doesn’t necessarily want to tell anyone that “You give me butterflies” as she once did. On “Good Wife,” Musgraves tells us about a failing marriage in which she’s supposed to “Listen to his problems, tell him that I understand.” The song is sad, especially because at the end of the day she sings, “Without him, this house just wouldn’t be a home.” It’s so conflicted and so full of passive aggressive yearning, but the only thing I can hear when the third chorus arrives is fun guitars.
The issue with the characterization of this album as a horribly sad album is exactly that—the fun, rumbling, Kacey-esque guitars; it still has the energy that Golden Hour did. Yes, she speaks about a broken marriage and relentless tears, but it’s a Kacey Musgraves album and the guitars are FUN. The instrumentals are BRIGHT. Even if the strumming is more softly produced than on the album’s predecessor, you can’t listen to “Cherry Blossom” and not feel alive.
So maybe Kacey is sad. Maybe you’re sad. But is Star-Crossed sad?
I don’t really know what counts as sad music. I found Solar Power by Lorde to be high-key sad because of the dead dog song, but it was supposed to be her “happy” album. Her previous album, Melodrama, has songs like “Liability” that should be gut wrenching, but you can dance to Melodrama.
I think it’s time to do what any good reporter would do, and take this to the masses. The guy sitting across the table from me in the library.
‘ “Sounds that match your vibe when you’re sad,” he tells me of his definition. It’s such a low-effort and annoying answer because I wanted him to give me a thesis worth of deep thoughts, but could he be onto something? When I listen to “Justified,” the second single from the record, I don’t really feel sad because I haven’t been divorced yet so it doesn’t “match my vibe” as my source would assert.
But I also cry to “Dear John” by Taylor sometimes, and not in a post-breakup context. So I’m not satisfied with his definition, and I tell him that. I continue with my reporting by casting a wide net into a field of music experts (by sending a question into a group chat with my friends).
“I like to listen to sad music when I’m sleeping on the airplane or studying,” one of my friends responds (all sources will remain anonymous for fear of retribution). I don’t really know what to take from this. Would she consider listening to Star-Crossed on an airplane? I don’t think of airplanes as “sad.” Do you? Send tips my way.
Anyway, the narrative arc of this column is flying off the rails, much like Kacey’s marriage, so what I will say is that I don’t think Star-Crossed is the depressing album that everyone thinks it is. I’m bopping to “Justified,” and that’s okay! When she sings “If I was an angel, I wouldn’t have to try / So hard to save you,” I laugh, and that’s okay too (although one of my sources tells me this is all very insensitive). But if it’s really hitting hard for you, that’s okay too! Just know that maybe the album isn’t sad — you are.
By the way, “Angel” is the best song here. Give it a listen. Welcome to week one of a chaotic, brain-dump-ful music column. Email your definitions of “sad music” to email@example.com and we shall revisit them at a later date.