With his Stunning New Album, Ruston Kelly Looks Towards the Light

Ruston Kelly | Shape and Destroy | (Rounder)
4 1/2 stars out of Five

Ruston Kelly is an exceptional artist. Why? Well, for starters, he’s come straight out of the gate with two brilliant albums and a pair of equally impressive EPs. Barely three years into his career, he’s not only grabbed the attention of the pundits and critics, but also made it clear that he is a force to be reckoned with within Americana realms as well as that wider reach beyond. It’s little wonder then that his new album, Shape and Destroy,mustered such anticipation, given the fact that his full length debut, 2018’s Dying Star, was heralded as a minor masterpiece straight from the start.

Happily then, its successor is just as memorable. Both knowing and nuanced, its 13 songs share Kelly’s determination to maintain his sobriety following his earlier struggles with alcoholism and drug dependency. It is, in the truest sense, both a vindication that his vulnerability was sorely needed, and that he’s wholly committed to his craft.

It is, in fact, one of the best albums released so far this year.

“I try to make sure that whatever I’m looking at, and that whatever I’m doing that’s related to creating, is constructive,” Kelly says in retrospect. “I’m so appreciative of anyone saying something good about the work I’m doing, because who doesn’t want to hear that? In any industry where you have to hustle — and where there’s a game aspect to it, and you have to get your game face on a lot of times — I just want to make the best work possible. I appreciate that, and I say, let’s continue the work and be really thankful for it, and also have a feeling of humility and gratitude. I know what my life looked liked when I didn’t have anything going on and I didn’t have my shit together.”

That said, Shape and Destroy is a markedly different from its predecessor in one decidedly distinct way. Kelly claims that it’s the first record he’s made that found him sober while working. Although the two albums share a similarly hushed tone, his uplifting attitude is adeptly expressed in songs such as “Hallelujah Anyway,” “Clean,” “Under the Sun” and particularly in the offering that sums up his sentiment best, the aptly titled “Changes.”

“I’ve been going through some changes, everything is rearranging.”

In the liner notes to Dying Star, Kelly declared: “This record is the sun setting, the blackness of night, and the courage to withstand the dark knowing light will be returning soon…This is simply the story of a very particular time that could be described as the passage through limbo,”

Clearly, he’s made his way through the haze, with both courage and conviction.

“I think that being comfortable in your everyday life is a quality of being brave,” Kelly insists. “Sharing this part of me is easy to do, but it can be that the hardest thing to do is also the more right thing to do. I believe the more vulnerable you can be can make you feel more empowered. I think vulnerability can be a source of strength and security within yourself. I feel like art is meant to be as transparent as possible. It’s a vehicle for me. I’m saying, ‘This is really what’s going on with me.’ I think that the point is that the more vulnerable that you are, the gentler you are with other people. You’re no different from me; we’re all trying to sift through the human condition. People can connect with each other through attitude and emotion.”

In a sense, each of Kelly’s offerings have been a catharsis of sorts, a way to express himself in ways that resonate through unfiltered emotion and a shift in sensitivity. In some ways, he could be likened to an American version of the influential yet introspective British folk singer and songwriter Nick Drake, an artist whose inability to find his way out of his personal abyss eventually led him to his demise.

Fortunately, for his part, Kelly shows a decided determination to move forward. While many of the new songs — “Closest Thing,” “Mid-Morning Lament,”  “Alive” and “Rubber” in particular meander at a deliberate pace, others find a decided surge in tone and tempo, along with an occasionally unexpected burst of optimism. With his longtime producer Jarrad K once again at the helm, and his father Tim contributing pedal steel guitar, the arrangements are lush and atmospheric, and, indeed, they often seem to soar. “Brighter days will come,” Kelly suggests on the track “Under the Sun,” and indeed there is a sense that Kelly’s optimism is well founded.

“It was a miracle, but art and the willingness to express yourself can make you a better person,” Kelly concedes. “I’ll stand by that statement. I think that was the thing I was holding on to in this tornado in my life. The belief that it’s a gift that’s been given you, and it’s your duty to honor that and channel it in ways that will make you a better person and make other people better people.  If you can understand yourself, that can make you stronger. My tool was crafting these songs and expressing myself and performing them on stage. I discovered this little light way off in the distance. This record was my head coming out of the water, seeing that light and knowing it was pretty damn far, but that I could still reach it. So that’s been my mantra when I sit down to write, ‘it’s like okay, let it go.’”

A self-confessional singer often likens music to a catharsis, and in fact, in some cases, it could become an alternative to spending time on a therapist’s coach. Of course, that may seem a somewhat irreverent attitude, but Kelly seems to appreciate the suggestion. “You’re given a gift that allows you to expose yourself completely, so that maybe someone else can understand something about themselves,” he suggests. “It is pretty therapeutic. It almost is like free therapy. Then again, anything that requires bravery automatically requires a whole lot of strength. And to achieve that within yourself and pull yourself out of some really tangled webs, makes it a triumph for yourself, a quiet triumph. That was the point of this record, to be the kind of capstone of that era of my life — when I was abusing myself and not knowing myself — and to get to a place where I can say, I’m okay. Maybe I’m not okay sometimes, but overall it’s still a big triumph for me.”

In that sense, music has become more than his muse, a way to notate his trajectory from the depths of despair to the place where he is now.

“The first record I made, Halloween, was the prologue, like chapter one,” Kelly explains. “And Dying Star was chapter two. This record is about what happened at this point in my life. This is what I learned, and this is what I want be, and this is what I don’t want to be anymore. So with this album, I go from chapter two into chapter three. There should be fearlessness to it. You make what you make when you’re being authentic, and it really doesn’t matter if only one person gets something out of it, because if that’s the case, then you’ve done your job. I truly believe that. You have to be as authentic as you can at that certain point in your life.”

Given the critical kudos that have come his way, there are also expectations that find the need to set a high bar for each succeeding effort. Kelly says that’s been his goal, at least from his own perspective.

“I hope that I always feel like I have to reach the bar again and again,” he muses. “If you’re an artist, and your art is important to you, then it’s a functional tool that helps you understand your place in the world. You get better at it. No matter what anyone says about the bar you have to set, the question is, what is the bar that you’ve set for yourself internally? What is the bar for your craft?  So chapter two looks pretty good. That’s been accomplished. So when I finished recording this record, I felt like whatever happens with it professionally, it is what is. The goal has to be internal. It has to fuel your self-confidence. If you feel like you’ve done that, then you’ve come closer to mastering your craft.”

There again, Kelly is convinced he’ll succeed, and, if Shape and Destroy is any indication, there’s no doubt he will.

“My goal going forward is to spend the time and do as much as I can, and to work within that space,” he reflects. “I love the work.”

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