I Love Divorce Albums, Probably Because I’m Divorced

Kacey Musgraves' 'Star-Crossed' is the latest in a long line of records depicting the end of a marriage, a genre and experience I know well.
Alex Zaragoza
Brooklyn, US
September 15, 2021, 4:35pm
Kacey Musgraves' Star-Crossed' Divorce Album Resonates
Credit: John Shearer/MTV VMAs 2021/Getty Images

Divorce sucks. A million movies, songs, and one perfect Twitter thread will tell you exactly why. But that specific brand of grief and finality can also bring a liberation of self, both physically and spiritually, and a newfound understanding of how you want to live out the rest of your days on earth. The rich and famous have long made divorce a brutal public battle, but artists have channeled the harsh realities of separation into musical exorcisms. As a listener, their songs offer a way to process our own heartache, as we see our tears, our anger, our sorrow reflected in the strum of guitars and confessional lyrics that feel like a stab to the chest. For me, those albums were there when I was sinking in the deep, suffocating waters of divorce, and they eventually grew to mean something deeper.

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Last week, Kacey Musgraves’ Star-Crossed became the latest exhibit in the museum of divorce albums, written and recorded after her split from fellow country singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly in 2020. Her previous album, the Grammy Award-winning and critic fave Golden Hour, was a cosmic country-pop ode to their love, drenched in spacey disco and lyrics professing how he set her world on fire. That album played on a loop in my apartment to the point of farce. I wasn’t even in love at the time, but its warmth and honesty were soothing, particularly during the cold winter days of the pandemic when I formed silly crushes that went nowhere and spiraled in my solitude as the world was in chaos. When I met someone, listening became sweeter. 

But then came the end of the love story of Kacey and Ruston. It seemed amicable based on their joint statement and interviews that followed, but a divorce is a divorce. And I knew at some point, the Divorce Album would come, and that it had the potential to be a beautiful, cathartic piece of music. It’s as if after a divorce musicians are compelled to make something great and special in some way so that the heartache can have more significance—if the art that comes from it is truly meaningful, it was not all in vain. Making a divorce album sounds like a masochistic endeavor, sure, but also a healing one. 

Fleetwood Mac’s seminal 1977 album, Rumours, chronicled the ugly end of all five band members' relationships, with Stevie Nicks and Linsday Buckingham’s contentious breakup fueling some of the most gut-wrenching tracks on the album. Songs like “The Chain,” “Dreams,” and “Silver Springs” have become canon in pop music history, and specifically for anyone navigating the wreckage of a broken marriage. Today, many critics and fans consider the album the highest point of the band's career, forcing its members to relive it regularly in interviews even years after essentially vowing to despise each other for all eternity. Every so often, one particular live performance resurfaces in my feed, and I’m always jarred by its rawness: It’s from 1997, and Stevie Nicks looks Lindsay Buckingham in the eye when she sings, I'll follow you down ’til the sound of my voice will haunt you, unleashing 30 years of resentment onto her former partner.

Rumours is far from the only album to release the bitter heartache of a marriage lost. Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear is a soulful kiss-off to his former wife Anna Gordy, a record executive who was entitled to half the royalties of this album, per their divorce settlement. Instead of pulling something out of his ass as a final aggrieved bit of revenge, Gaye made something deeply personal, sorrowful, and, yes, at moments spiteful for his former wife. Willie Nelson’s 1974 Phases and Stages tells the story of a marriage ending from the perspective of both parties, with each side of the album telling the story from their respective eyes. Although he claimed it was fictional, the album was written following Nelson’s own infidelity, the divorce that came from it, and his subsequent marriage to his mistress. Cursive’s 2000 emo-rock concept album, Domestica, became frontman Tim Kasher’s exercise in expelling the agony of his divorce. Its relentless rawness and disillusionment still feels like a fresh wound more than 20 years later. A while after its release, I saw him perform with his other band The Good Life, where he sang some more crushing songs about the end of his marriage. I was literally crying in the club thanks to Tim Kasher. There are plenty more, some more successful than others. Robin Thicke’s mea culpa Paula, for example, wasn’t enough to win back his ex, actress Paula Patton. Did it have anything to do with the fact that the album sucked big time? That’s for them and their therapists to know and for me to wonder.

Which brings us back to Star-Crossed. As someone who has gone through an extremely bitter divorce that all but destroyed me, I was and still am drawn to these albums. They articulate everything I felt during that time in my life, and let me wallow in it for the duration of their runtime plus the two hours after when I stare into nothing and think “fuck, man.” Years ago, when it was fresh, I’d seek the pain, because during those moments I could luxuriate in my tornado of hurt before having to go back to burying myself in survival​​—working tirelessly, drinking and partying so that everyone thought I was doing fine, eating Taco Bell in my car after stealing a bunch of samples from Sephora. Now, these albums serve a different purpose for me. They allow me to recall that period and feel those feelings again with the protective layer of time and healed wounds. That was something I was eager to experience from Musgraves, an artist I’d already invited to routinely kick me in the emotional genitals. I was intrigued to hear how she would approach her divorce album.

Three years after Golden Hour, Star-Crossed is a soft and airy walk in her shoes as a woman desperately trying to make her marriage work, only to accept its finality and pick herself up from the ruins. There’s no big, loud “You Oughta Know”-type fuck you, but the middle fingers are still raised throughout, whisper-sung breathily over breezy, soft pop. The album gives a breakup Pure Moods. One track, “There Is a Light,” even goes hard on the jazz flute. Overall, it feels very coffeehouse on a spaceship, with an air of calm despite lyrics that depict the end of the relationship as anything but. It’s almost like she’s attempting to manifest the peace of closure, even if she may not be quite there yet.

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The titular song is a spaghetti western-esque ballad in the style of Scott Walker, foreshadowing the heartbreak to come. “Good Wife” is a delicate plea to the Lord above to help her be the kind of wife she thinks she ought to be to make it work, while “Breadwinner” is the closest Musgraves gets to scorching some earth, calling out her ex as a user who brings her down when she’s on top. “Easier Said” has a synthy 80s power ballad edge and reflects on the hardships of loving someone. “Camera Roll” is a jangly melancholy number on the bittersweet torture of scrolling photos in your phone and seeing the memories of when things were good. It all culminates on a hopeful note with “What Doesn’t Kill Me,” a barn burner cementing the end of the relationship, where she sings: I’ve been to hell and back / Golden hour faded black / Say that ain’t coming back. 

People often say a divorce feels like a death, one you mourn until eventually you grow around the grief, as it forms a part of you. Something dies but from that springs new life. In an interview with Apple Music, Musgraves said heartache is “a rebirth in many ways. It’s a clean slate. It’s the opportunity to thank the old energy, but it’s also allowing for new energy to come in. New ideas, a new personality.” It’s apt, then, that Musgraves concludes the album with a cover of Chilean folk legend Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a la Vida,” a haunting ballad in which Parra expresses gratitude for a life that gave her so much: Parra wrote and released the song, now widely considered her goodbye letter, a year before she would die by suicide. Star-Crossed feels like a goodbye letter too, though under far less tragic circumstances.

Earlier this year, in Rolling Stone, Musgraves said her marriage “simply didn’t work out. It’s nothing more than that. It’s two people who love each other so much, but for so many reasons, it just didn’t work. I mean, seasons change. Our season changed.” The experience, she said, made her question marriage as a whole: “I mean, I was open to it when it came into my life. I embraced it. I just have to tell myself I was brave to follow through on those feelings.” That’s something I understand deeply, even if the circumstances are far from the same.

I was 25 when I left my husband, who I had married at the tender age of 22. There may be exceptions to this (and congrats if you’re one of them), but I emphatically do not recommend marrying someone you met while studying abroad in college, no matter how romantic it seems. This is a real symptom of main character syndrome and also thinking you’re grown when you’re most definitely not. Still, however stupidly, I followed love. Like Musgraves, I’m not ashamed to have been open to it—but in hindsight, I’m more proud that I was brave enough to walk away from an extremely bad situation despite being young, broke, and with little resources to help me overcome that mountain of awful. 

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It would take eight years for me to actually get divorced, and rather than effervescent pop-country songs, those couple early years post-breakup were soundtracked by the saddest and/or angriest music ever made, blasted out of a Nissan Sentra whipping down the 5 or while lying on the floor in an apartment I could barely afford. Without the resources to afford therapy, I turned to several creative endeavors to help process what had happened and to push myself to emerge from this time a better, more desirable version of myself. Because another thing about divorce—especially contentious ones that sprout from abuse—is that they have a way of leveling even the most confident person to rubble. You have no choice but to pick up each brick, one by one, and slowly build back your foundation and your home. Forcing something like this doesn’t really work, but I eventually got to where I needed to be. 

Lacking the musical capabilities to record a masterful divorce album of my own, I crafted. I sat surrounded by Mod Podge and exacto knives as breakup albums like Blur’s 13 played. Every resonant call of Come on, come on, come on / Get through it, from the gospel choir on “Tender,” spoke directly to my desire to move on, to be free of the burden of heartbreak. Unfortunately, my divorce came right around the same time as my blessedly short-lived twee phase, so I was using cutesy paper dolls and yarn to make stuff so god awfully precious I’m shocked Wes Anderson didn’t send a cease and desist. I crafted so hard Zooey Deschanel could claim identity theft. I sold pieces on Etsy, before discovering it was just my sister buying my shit because she felt sorry for me. I held an art show in one of my hometown’s party houses where I made people read from their high school diaries, and my best friend and I sang an acoustic cover of “Never Gonna Give You Up.” It was disgusting. I regret that more than getting married. But creating art from heartbreak seems to be an intrinsic part of the process. What if I was the Stevie Nicks of crafting? (I was not.)

And I focused on my writing. That ultimately became my career. Writing forces you to sit with whatever it is you’re trying to say, whatever it is you’re feeling. It’s why I mostly write at night when it’s quiet and there are no distractions, despite having deadlines which I chronically blow right past. I’ve written about my divorce here and there, because even after 13 years that part of my life still sits with me. In sharing that truth, I’ve found release, acceptance, understanding, and, most importantly, community—because I’m far from alone in these feelings, and when someone else can lend voice to something you’ve experienced, it means the absolute world. It’s why these albums resonate so hard, take on personal significance for so many, and stand the test of time. It’s why I was dying to sit and soak in Star-Crossed. The album has its issues: It’s a bit disjointed, sometimes corny, and doing a lot to create a vibe of Spa Day at the Heartbreak Hotel. But it’s also honest. Musgraves did what she had to do. 

“I think there is always reward in choosing to be the most vulnerable,” Musgraves said in an interview with Apple Music. “Trauma, heartbreak, grief, anger, depression, all these things, in a lot of ways are even more relatable than having this crazy love.”

I’ve always thought how hard it must be for a singer to perform the songs they wrote about a lost love, a broken marriage, a disillusion so great it changes you forever; how they can take that hurt and create something beautiful and non-yarn-based out of it. I wonder how Musgraves will feel once she starts touring the album, and sings her heartbreak to crowds of thousands singing along with her; how she’ll feel in a year, five years, or ten when she’s still playing songs from Star-Crossed. Her performance at this year’s VMA’s was a fiery glimpse into what that looks like now. Perhaps, with each day and year, her relationship to those songs will change. That’s been true for me and the divorce albums that have been my companions. What once was the soundtrack to some of the lowest moments of my life are now old friends I visit knowing that time is far behind me. The knife might twist a bit, but it doesn’t kill me.