Kacey Musgraves Examines Heartbreak On 'Star-Crossed' : Pop Culture Happy Hour Kacey Musgraves's 2018 album Golden Hour was a huge breakthrough. It's a soft but spangly celebration full of love songs that helped cement Musgraves as both a country star and a pop star. Now, she's released her follow-up. Star-Crossed is a breakup record, written in the aftermath of the singer's divorce. Plus we remember the work of comedian Norm Macdonald, who died at 61.

Kacey Musgraves Examines Heartbreak On 'Star-Crossed'

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

Kacey Musgraves' 2018 album "Golden Hour" was a huge breakthrough. It's a soft but spangly celebration full of love songs that helped cement Musgraves as both a country star and a pop star. Now she's released her follow-up. "Star-Crossed" is a breakup record written in the aftermath of the singer's divorce.

I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we are talking about Kacey Musgraves' new album "Star-Crossed" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPSON: Welcome back. Joining me today is NPR Music's Lyndsey McKenna. Welcome back, Lyndsey.

LYNDSEY MCKENNA, BYLINE: Hey, Stephen.

THOMPSON: So great to have you. Also, we have Anamaria Sayre, producer for NPR's Alt.Latino. Hi, Anamaria.

ANAMARIA SAYRE, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks for having me.

THOMPSON: Oh, always a pleasure to have you both. So Kacey Musgraves first broke through in 2013 with her album "Same Trailer Different Park." It was my favorite record of that year. It's full of grand mission statements and really smart commentary on small-town life. Since then, her sound has expanded from folk and country to include more elements of pop, psychedelia and even hints of disco. Her last album, "Golden Hour," was a huge success. It won four Grammys, including album of the year. That album was packed with love songs about her relationship with singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly. But in the years since, Musgraves and Kelly have gotten a divorce, and that loss inspired the songs that she wrote for "Star-Crossed." This album is a bittersweet companion to "Golden Hour," as she acknowledges in the song "What Doesn't Kill Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT DOESN'T KILL ME")

KACEY MUSGRAVES: (Singing) I've been to hell and back, golden hour faded black. Say that it ain't coming back, ain't coming back. But you're gonna feel me. You're gonna feel me.

THOMPSON: OK, so, Lyndsey, I'm going to start with you. What did you think of "Star-Crossed"?

MCKENNA: I got to start by saying, that snippet that we just played, I kind of feel like every sad meme that you see on the internet...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

MCKENNA: ...Like, when I first heard that song, it hit me like that, and that was my initial reaction. I've loved Kacey since I heard "Same Trailer Different Park." I grew up listening to country music, so I have this relationship to the genre. What I loved about that first record of hers and just in her work since, there's this irreverence that's just so irresistibly fun. She's so smart and so critical but also just so endearing. And what led me a little astray on "Star-Crossed" is that it doesn't have the same subtlety. "Golden Hour" felt so innovative and exceptional, and it made you feel like this is the only person to have ever fallen in love before because this is how intimate I feel with this relationship.

And look; we had really high expectations. Like, Kacey Musgraves was coming in with this divorce record, which - first of all - like, that concept of the breakup record, the divorce record, has already got so much baked into it. And now having a few listens under my belt, you know, it doesn't feel like it's as much about the breakup or about, like, what went wrong as it is about the aftermath and the personal reflections. And I think there were moments of "Golden Hour" that were so dreamy and optimistic, but it wasn't without some clear-eyed...

THOMPSON: Right.

MCKENNA: ...Insight into exactly what made that relationship tick. And I think "Star-Crossed" - again, I think it lacks some of the subtlety. It speaks in platitudes rather than sort of, like, the incisiveness that has always made Kacey's work so singular. That being said, look; I'm all in. I got tickets to the tour. I want to see the staging.

(LAUGHTER)

MCKENNA: Breakups are real. Breakups are human. It's a narrative about a breakup, one that I felt personally invested in. And I don't want to get into parasocial relationships after the week that we've had on Twitter.

(LAUGHTER)

MCKENNA: But I think that "Star-Crossed," it's not a letdown. It's not perfect. But I think that there's a little lack of, like, that - what made Kacey really feel so elevated from her peers.

THOMPSON: That was quite a journey that you took us on. That was very much like, here's what I don't like; also, I would die for her.

(LAUGHTER)

MCKENNA: I really do. I would die for Kacey. But at the same time, you can want more for the people that you love.

SAYRE: That's true. That's where I'm at.

MCKENNA: And I think that that's - that is true.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

SAYRE: You know what? First of all, she's definitely - you know, we're, like, waiting on this divorce album and kind of trying to see where she takes it. And I think, in a sense, because she's such a high-profile person, there's a lot of interest, too, and, like, just the natural curiosity of, like, oh, we're getting a little bit of a window into kind of, like, this whole experience and what happened and what this was like for her and what went down. And I don't think we get a ton of that because she is, in many ways, absolutely the main character in this album. It's really about kind of, like, you know, good wife and her conforming to something that she's been taught, is expected of her and is a role that she's supposed to fall into and seeing that as obviously, like, an irony there in that, like, this is not who she is and how she's built her career and all of that. And so, like, there's definitely that element of it that I actually appreciate. Like, I think that it stayed centered on her.

However, I 100% agree with you. The nuance is not really there in most of the album for me. I think, like, a lot of it is so on-the-nose. I think she expanded kind of her creativity in terms of her production and took some risks here in a way that she hasn't, I think, in previous albums. But I do think, like, so much of it was just so cut and dry. Like, this was my divorce. This was how I was feeling. And it left me feeling a little flat about the whole thing. I wasn't feeling as drawn into this one. I felt kind of removed from her experience. I felt like she had this very specific experience with her divorce, and this is what happened. And like, for those listening, I have never been married, so I can't speak to that experience.

(LAUGHTER)

SAYRE: But I would have hoped that I could have felt a little bit more a part of it in that sense. And I think the future and all of that kind of stuff she kind of styles in this, like, Greek tragedy form and really leans into this grandiose opening and these sounds and the way she closes it with "Gracias A La Vida" and all of these different things, and I think she was trying to do something huge here and make a statement here that I think just was ultimately a little absent.

THOMPSON: You know, I agree with you guys.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: I had somewhat of a similar reaction to this, and I say that with the caveat that there are several songs on this record I think are outstanding and also that I think this album cannot help but buckle a little bit under the weight of the enormous expectations surrounding it, not only in the public at large but for me personally. When I think of my favorite albums of the 21st century, I think of several breakup albums - Bon Iver, Noah And The Whale. Beyonce. "Lemonade" is not a breakup album, but it's very much a relationship turmoil album. And I think of several Kacey Musgraves records. So combine the two, it's going to be, obviously, my favorite album of the 21st century, right?

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Well, obviously, like, when you put that kind of weight of expectation on something, it's going to sag a little bit under that weight. I think one thing you guys said about, like, falling back on platitudes, that kind of comes up again and again. There's a kind of, like, keep-reaching-for-the-stars thing that comes up. There's, like, certain lines that just kind of fall flat 'cause they're deeply felt but they don't say anything new.

One area in which this record suffers in relation to "Golden Hour" is that it's very easy to think of those two records thematically as polar opposites, but they're not. "Golden Hour" is not an album full of nothing but Technicolor love songs, moony-eyed, falling in love. "Space Cowboy" is a breakup song. There are some devastating pieces on "Golden Hour." This record, by contrast, feels more kind of thematically monochromatic in a way. And when I think of some of my other favorite breakup albums, they're going through, I think, a greater range of emotions - more anger, more recrimination, more bitterness, more acceptance, more - here's where I slept around, you know? (Laughter). And this album is kind of gliding over the surface of some of those themes without necessarily going deep into them in a way that feels visceral to the listener.

But I do want to kind of segue into the next point of discussion, when we're talking about individual favorite songs. I want to talk about an exception to that tendency, and it's a song called "Camera Roll."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAMERA ROLL")

MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Don't go through your camera roll so much you don't know that you've forgotten what a trip, the way you can flip through all the good parts of it. I shouldn't have done it.

THOMPSON: That is getting at something very specific and something very modern - this idea that your relationship is preserved in amber but through a prism of your phone and that you can kind of scroll through your relationship and then be struck by good parts and bad parts. And there's just a real specificity to that piece of songwriting that I really love and wanted to hear a little bit more of. And I was wondering if you guys have other highlights from this record that you wanted to talk about.

MCKENNA: Yeah, I just want to say I completely agree on "Camera Roll." I think it's impossible - like, nearly impossible - to incorporate technology in a way that feels satisfying and to really make it artful. And I do think I - actually, I remember there was a snippet of that song that was on a podcast before the album was out, and I got a little nervous because I thought, oh, I don't know if you can stick the landing on a song that takes on that concept. And it really does. It does it for me, especially the end of that just is a...

THOMPSON: Yeah (laughter).

MCKENNA: ...Real knife in the - oh, just - it turns. The line on "What Doesn't Kill Me" - golden hour faded black - again, another knife, just obviously. Some of the tracks, I do want to say, that don't work as well for me are some of the early-aughts-inspired ones. "Simple Times" and "Justified" feel a little like, oh, huh, this is a early 2000s radio song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUSTIFIED")

MUSGRAVES: (Singing) If cry just a little and then laugh in the middle, if I hate you and I love you and then I change my mind, if I need just a little more time to deal with the fact that you should've treated me right, then I'm more than just a little justified.

MCKENNA: I understand that she's hearkening back. But it's just - it's a sonic palette that doesn't quite get there for me. However, one thing that I do really like, I think, the middle section. So as we said, it's supposed to be this Shakespearean, Greek chorus, three sections. I don't know that we fully get that unless she really, like, drives that narrative home. But I do think the midsection, where she does reflect a little more on sort of the ebb and flow of coming out of a relationship, of thinking back to, like, those specific memories that really do stand out in "Camera Roll" - even in "Justified," I said, like, I don't love the sonic palette of it. But I think that that's a moment where you get the sense that, like, healing isn't linear. I wish she would have been a little more artful, though.

SAYRE: Honestly, one of the songs that I really wanted to point out - and unfortunately, it's not as a standout song but more as a critique - is - well, critique, mixed feelings. For me, obviously, "Gracias A La Vida," like, hearing that song, which, I think, is a beautiful song - and I think the production she did on it is really fascinating and the way that she kind of, like, changes up every single verse and does something different. And, you know, she's talked about kind of the way that this song touched her and the way that she felt connected to it, and kind of watching it move through all the iterations that it has, because it has been covered in so many different iterations, to then kind of reach her and be featured on this album. I think that there is an element of something interesting there.

But it's also a really strange pick to me in many ways beyond just, like, looking at - again, if we're talking about kind of this, like, staying on the surface and, like, taking things for what they are, like, at face value, the lyrics themselves do seem to speak, in some sense, to what she's doing here on this album and her experience. But in reality, like, there is such a rich history to this song and a rich cultural history, frankly. Like, it was originally created by someone, Violeta Parra, who was an activist, and then covered - the version that she's kind of taking here is the Mercedes Sosa cover and, like, again, an activist. And these are women who, like, really battled and, like, really, like, were in things so much greater than themselves and their own experiences.

And so, like, taking these lyrics and talking about being thankful for life and thankful for, like, all of these things - and there is, like, that happy and sad element in the song, but happy and sad in the face of, you know, Latin American oppression and activism and the struggle and all of these things. And so to me, it felt a little strange that she would then use this song as, like, oh, the perfect ending point on a breakup album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GRACIAS A LA VIDA")

MUSGRAVES: (Singing in Spanish).

SAYRE: I don't know how to feel about that because she expresses this love for kind of, like, the Spanish language and explicitly says, like, oh, it adds so much color to music and all of these things. And I don't know if Spanish adding color to music is a justification for using a language that there's so much more there to speaking in for someone who is - who uses Spanish as their native language and using it as an alternative form of expression with, you know, so much depth there. I guess the point is is it calls back to what I said about her really trying to do something much larger here. And this is a song with so much strength and so much history and so much richness to it. And I don't know that it could work for the purposes that she's trying to use it for.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And it comes right after a song called "There Is A Light" that has, like, a pretty slamming flute solo.

(LAUGHTER)

SAYRE: I'm so glad we're talking about the flute solo.

MCKENNA: I know, me too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE IS A LIGHT")

MUSGRAVES: (Singing) There is a light.

THOMPSON: And it kind of feels like once you've done the mic drop of a flute solo, the addition of that song at the end felt a little jarring. It felt almost like an afterthought or a bonus track. I wanted to ask you guys about "Star-Crossed" and its visual companion. There is a film version of this album streaming at Paramount+. I would say it's sort of a longform video. It adjusts kind of the chronology of the album and presents it more as a film kind of in the spirit of, like, what Beyonce has done with kind of visual albums. My question for y'all...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: ...Is this movie necessary? Does it complement the album in any way? Should people do what I did and watch it before hearing the album? No (laughter). What did you guys think?

MCKENNA: I think that frankly, like, Beyonce aside, perhaps - maybe I'm showing my age. But I don't feel like I get a lot out of the visual album experience. I think there are some really incredible imagery. Obviously, the costumes are just incredible. It's a feast. But that being said, I don't know that I needed it. It kind of felt like a gluttonous feast. If you've got Paramount+, you know, pour yourself a drink. It's Friday night. Enjoy. Otherwise, I don't think that you need it. I do think it probably is going to give us some hints at what a live staging of "Star-Crossed" looks like.

SAYRE: I think I would even raise what Lyndsey said in saying, if you have Paramount+ and you're, you know, pouring yourself a drink already and have friends over and are, like, chatting and you want to (laughter) have it on in the background, I think that would be a good move, which sounds harsh. But, like, it's a story. And I think, like, you know, she talks a lot about healing not being linear and kind of going through these phases. And so I think that it is interesting in some sense that she kind of deviated from album order and decided to go in a different direction and maybe tell a slightly nuanced version of the story she was attempting to tell on the album.

But, like, I think, as we also have kind of touched on, like, she was trying to go through this kind of tragic reenactment of everything that happened and do the whole play on a three-part act and all of that kind of stuff, and really does play to that in this 50-minute film. I just didn't find it engaging. I think, as a music video, you could have kept me for four or five minutes. And I would have been like, oh, this is colorful and interesting and a nice visual to pair with the sound. But for 50 minutes, I mean, there wasn't enough of a narrative there to keep me engaged.

And, like, also, I can't talk about it without talking about the fact that, you know, similar to the "Gracias A La Vida" conversation, like she is co-opting a lot of different, like - you know, she has drag queens featured on it. She definitely has some chola imagery on there. Like, there's all kinds of different communities of people that she is pulling from and using in this visual space. And I don't - to me, I'm not necessarily seeing enough of, like, a reason behind that that is, like, inherent within the work itself that would, like, require or ask for something like that. And so again, I'm kind of like, I don't really know what she's getting at here. But it's feeling like the Spanish adds color once again. Like, oh, I like this style. I like this visual. I'm going to add it to add color. And again, that, to me, is not enough of a justification.

THOMPSON: Well, obviously, we have some mixed feelings about this record, some very positive, some more negative. Let's go out on a highlight of this record, a song that I think we all like. Lyndsey, you were a fan of "Hookup Scene."

MCKENNA: Yeah. I think that this is one of those songs that, again, it comes towards sort of the midsection. It feels like it's, again, like maybe in part with "Camera Roll." It's tied to this sort of, like, technological aspect. You're thinking about, like, modern love in this, like, post-breakup life. But it's also really tender about what's transpired, you know, holding on tight. And I don't know that it's necessarily a song that paints something in retrospect as better than it was. But I think it gives you a sense that, like, just because it's over, doesn't mean it wasn't valuable and beautiful and real.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOOKUP SCENE")

MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Hold on tight despite the way they make you mad, because you might not even know that you don't have it so bad.

THOMPSON: Well, we want to know what you think about Kacey Musgraves and about "Star-Crossed." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks so much to both of you for being here.

MCKENNA: Thank you, Stephen.

SAYRE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOOKUP SCENE")

MUSGRAVES: (Singing) If you've got someone to love...

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

Before we go, we just wanted to take a minute to remember the comedian Norm Macdonald. He died at the age of 61. Macdonald was a comedian's comedian, which people usually take to mean one that audiences don't get but comedians do. That wasn't Macdonald, exactly. He enjoyed great success over his career, starting out as a nightclub comic, then writing for shows like "Roseanne" and getting a stint on "SNL" that saw him doing deeply studied impressions of Burt Reynolds, Larry King and David Letterman, and ultimately anchoring "Weekend Update."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

NORM MACDONALD: Real estate mogul Donald Trump announced this week that after 3 1/2 years of marriage, he is seeking a divorce from wife Marla Maples. According to Trump, Maples violated part of their marriage agreement when she decided to turn 30.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: It wasn't that audiences didn't get him. It's that specific audiences got him in a deep and very specific way. Macdonald, like his biggest fans, delighted in the craft of comedy, the rhythms of jokes he would seem to stumble through, the carefully studied artifice of it all. This was especially the case on his many guest spots on Conan O'Brien's talk shows, where he turned the familiar process of setting up a joke into a masterclass in absurdity and metacommentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH CONAN O'BRIEN")

CONAN O'BRIEN: The driver we sent to pick you up told you a joke?

MACDONALD: Yeah.

O'BRIEN: And you're going to tell it now on the show?

MACDONALD: Yeah. That's how I get all my material.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: OK. Why don't we just have him on next time?

MACDONALD: Aw, that guy - no, that guy - no, wait until you hear me do it.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: Macdonald was performatively unpretentious and pitched himself as a simple, salt-of-the-Earth guy. That wasn't a bit. It was his legitimate comic voice, one that he found at the very start of his long career. And he stuck to it. That kind of unwavering consistency has a downside, of course. A lot of his early material you can find on YouTube punches down, way down, in a way that wouldn't fly today and really shouldn't have then. But at his best, Norm Macdonald was a singular comic stylist who told jokes in a way only he could tell them, which made him both hugely influential and impossible to imitate.

I'm Glen Weldon. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. And we will see you all tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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