Album Review: Ruston Kelly, Shape & Destroy

Ruston Kelly

Shape & Destroy

This was a predictable next move for Ruston Kelly.

Now, when I say that, I’m referring to the thematic arc of his previous album, Dying Star, where the themes of burnout and mental decay in the face of addiction and depression largely colored Kelly’s personal life before his signing with Rounder Records to release that record. Here’s the thing, though – there’s no shortage of sadsack male country acts hanging on the outskirts of mental exhaustion. Kelly’s scope, however, was noticeably smaller, aimed at something more grounded and human, eschewing any attempts at bombast or bravado. And it’s why Dying Star was one of the best listens of 2018.

But it’s not the kind of album one makes twice, and while every artist would like to think they’re evolving with every release, it was encouraging to hear Kelly want to move past those darker days for his newest release, Shape & Destroy – even if the run of singles leading up to it didn’t feel as powerful or distinct in its execution.

And that’s important to bring up, because Shape & Destroy is aiming for lower stakes than its predecessor, even despite being the more upbeat release. Kelly certainly isn’t living in the throes of it like he was before here, but if anything, it only makes the occasional resurfacing demon even scarier, popping up in the most mundane, least-expected moments and threatening that happiness he’s found for himself.

So when I say that Shape & Destroy aims for lower stakes, it’s a two-pronged statement. You’re still going to get Kelly’s observational wit and eye for detail, touching on deeper themes of personal philosophy and the problems eating away at him with real humanity. It’s why “In The Blue” works as a great opener, framing his ongoing problems as a pendulum effect, showing how one never truly moves on, so much as finds ways to walk on in spite of those dark clouds hanging overhead.

Kelly isn’t content to toil away in that misery, but he is going to question his decisions as he tries to make something work, framing songs like “Changes” and “Radio Cloud” with a blunt honesty and self-awareness of how his struggles affect those closest to him, too. And it’s especially brutal when the guilt from that manifests on “Mid-Morning Lament” or “Rubber,” forcing him to question if it’s all a painfully natural element of the growth process or if he’s just stuck forever thinking of more innocent times on “Clean.”

Yet even if Shape & Destroy is only a small step toward happiness, it’s going to end with the same ambiguity as its predecessor, never quite offering an easy answer because … there is no escape from that pain, at least not a permanent one. To quote a similar album from earlier this year, “It gets easier, but it never gets easy.” It’s why even though tracks like “Alive” and “Under The Sun” could scan as platitude-filled in the framing of the content, Kelly only ever entertains the possibility of a happy ending on the latter track, while taking stock of his past wreckage even in an otherwise happy moment on the former track. It’s growth with accountability, above all else.

Here’s the other half of that aforementioned two-pronged statement, though – for as much as Kelly’s approach to melody and composition shapes his best moments, this is an album that doesn’t indulge in its craft as much as its predecessor, and I think that’s intentional. With how Kelly is in a healthier mindset this time around, the occasional offbeat moments and reflective tracks are clearly supporting the content first and foremost, which I respect. But I do miss the greater focus on mix dynamics in the composition, which are still here to an extent, but feel less pronounced. Not that Kelly ever indulged in flashy, bombastic moments anyway, but there was a subtlety to certain moments on Dying Star that only show up in pieces here, rather than overall.

Of course, the bones of what makes Kelly’s music compelling are still largely intact: warm acoustics that sit right at the forefront with pedal steel that supplements the melody, sandy drums, and piano and organ for accent marks when needed. But the production feels less strident this time around, opting more for straightforward country-folk, which is a shame, because I really miss those blasts of harmonica.

At the same time, there’s still a lot of subtle moments to appreciate, like how the gentle brushes of piano and acoustics shape “Mid-Morning Lament,” providing the warmth comfort of an otherwise innocuous time of day, even in the midst of a personal breakdown. It’s brutal in a non-typical sense, then. And I love the uptick in tempo on “Changes” to mirror actual personal growth, or how the darker, low-strummed acoustics shuffling through on “Rubber” provide a murkiness when matched against the touches of reverb, supporting that uneasy feeling and fear of knowing that someone in Kelly’s state could easily regress at any moment. Plus, even if Kelly – for whatever reason – is decidedly more nasal this time around and doing his best to work within a limited range, his hangdog delivery provides a rawness to his content, meaning that when he belts that final chorus of “Under The Sun” or delivers that hook on “Changes,” it’s damn-near cathartic in its optimism and believability. Even on the album’s darkest moments, if there’s a tinge of hope to be found, that’s the part he’ll always emphasize.

Which is why it’s a bit baffling that he’d choose to subdue some of the album’s best lyrical moments. “Brave” isn’t bad, per se, but when Kelly has delivered so much firepower with so much more gusto before, it can’t help but feel like a lesser track. And really, after the incredible run of songs that ends after “Rubber,” if it wasn’t for “Under The Sun,” I’d classify the ending run as somewhat of a disappointment in comparison. “Jubilee” feels a bit clumsy in its poetic construction, and the tones feel a bit too bright in comparison with the rest of the album, especially coming off of “Rubber.” And “Closest Thing” and “Pressure” feel like retreads of “Alive” and “Mid-Morning Lament,” respectively, that don’t push the narrative forward, so much as let it linger and settle, which makes for a great emotional payoff with “Under The Sun,” but feels like it’s plodding its way to get there.

But for as much of a slow-burn as Shape & Destroy is in comparison with past Kelly projects, there is a beauty to the darkness that renders it his most hopeful listen yet. And from here, the next logical step is to keep fighting and changing, meaning that it’s not so clear where Kelly takes his artistic muse from here. As always, though, there’s enough compelling merits in Kelly’s current work to maintain interest and follow him where he goes next anyway.

Recommended tracks: “Under The Sun,” “Mid-Morning Lament,” “Changes”

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