Pain and struggle aren't necessary to create great art, and we music fans probably owe it to our favorite artists to not romanticize that stuff so much, but it's tough to deny that some of the most impactful art does come as a response to tragedy and heartache. Kacey Musgraves' fourth album Star-Crossed was written in response to her divorce from Ruston Kelly, and you don't need to read press releases or interviews or gossip columns to know that. Kacey lays it all out in these songs, never mincing words or hiding her true meaning with metaphor. And to make her words even clearer, she strips back most of the musical maximalism that she introduced on her instant-classic 2018 album Golden Hour, an album that pushed her pop-country roots towards psychedelia, indie pop, and more. Star-Crossed retains some of that energy, like with the funk-lite of "Breadwinner" and the yacht rock of "There Is A Light," but it's largely focused on just Kacey's voice and acoustic guitar, with some light electronic embellishments. It's some of Kacey's most plaintive, earthy music yet.

Golden Hour proved that Kacey could take risks with her sound and still near the top of the Billboard chart and take home the Grammy for Album of the Year, and Star-Crossed could come off as an even bigger risk. Even in a post-folklore/evermore world, it feels rare to hear an arena headliner make an album that sounds this intimate. But the Kacey Musgraves of Star-Crossed doesn't sound like she's thinking about things like the Grammys and Billboard; she sounds like she has nothing left to lose, both personally and professionally. Star-Crossed sounds like the album that Kacey wanted and needed to make for herself, regardless of how anyone else would perceive it, and that level of unfiltered honesty makes it even more appealing than some of her songs that feel built to please crowds. Star-Crossed is still catchy and accessible, because hooks come out naturally even when Kacey doesn't sound like she's trying to write them, but it's her least radio-friendly album yet. These are the types of songs that people write to perform at coffeehouses and campfires; Kacey just happens to be famous enough to perform them at Madison Square Garden.

Star-Crossed is a sharp left turn for Kacey, but it does continue down some of the same paths as its predecessor, including its approach to genre-fluidity. An acoustic guitar-forward Kacey Musgraves album may sound like a "return to country" on paper, but it sounds much different in execution. As she did on Golden Hour, Kacey will probably always have audible country roots in her songwriting, but she continues to transcend the description of being a country musician. She connects the dots between country, indie, and pop, and she does so in a way where the musical innovation is present but subtle, so the vulnerability in her lyricism can take center stage. A true event album that's accompanied by a film on Paramount+, Star-Crossed seems big from afar, but once you click play, you've never heard Kacey this up close and personal.

Star-Crossed is out now on MCA Nashville/Interscope. Stream it and watch a couple videos (including the just-released "Simple Times" video) below...

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