Much has been made of Musgraves’s experimentation at the edges of country music. But praise for her omnivorousness has often read instead as exasperation with the assumed boundaries of the genre she’s perceived as distancing herself from. Sometimes those agitating for change from outside the genre are just as conservative as those agonizing about boundaries from within.
That was always a head fake. Musgraves came up as a traditionalist, and even when she’s poking at orthodoxy, she’s at least lightly invested in heritage: On this album, “Keep Lookin’ Up” is a lovely country song. That Musgraves arrived in Nashville during one of its most restrictive eras isn’t her fault; her closest analog is Sturgill Simpson, who also retreated into soft psychedelia as a reaction to what everyone within earshot was doing.
“Star-Crossed” isn’t as belabored, production-wise, as “Golden Hour,” which could feel overly woozy. (She worked with the same team here, the writers and producers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk.) In places, it’s almost breezy, and has a few callbacks to the light schlock of the 1970s and 1980s — the John Hughes-film gloom of “Easier Said” nods to “Drive” by the Cars, and the melancholic “Angel,” with a literal rainstorm arriving midway through, feels casually indebted to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.”
These relatively minor production gestures speak loudly because Musgraves comes from a world in which they are perceived as more radical than they actually are. (That said, this album is indeed more at home alongside, say, Phoebe Bridgers or Japanese Breakfast.) But they also resonate so loudly because Musgraves lets them say things her voice does not.
She never appears to be singing to convince you — her voice, which is modest in scale but deadly precise, connotes the power of malaise and exhaustion. It is regret embodied.
Sometimes — and often on this album — Musgraves’s resignation appears to extend to the actual act of singing itself. When she’s seething, she’s calm. When she’s calm, she’s verging on bored. Sometimes, at the end of a relationship, you’ve simply said everything there is to say. To give more would be to give too much.