Music Reviews
Shape & Destroy

Ruston Kelly Shape & Destroy

(Rounder Records) Rating - 7/10

On 2018’s Dying Star, Nashville singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly sang “We never burn out, we only brightly burst into the air,” an oddly hopeful ending for an album of upheaval and despair. With that debut, Kelly encompassed a full range of emotions for steady, emo-influenced country music comfortably. He could deftly weave together personal tales of blacking out in his car with biblical references without his songs seeming overwritten. After taking too many pills, getting high, and almost messing things up for good, it seemed like the future was positive with Dying Star’s closer Brightly Burst Into the Air. That brings us to his to Shape & Destroy, where it seems like the state of things haven’t improved for Kelly. His talent for frank, moderately depressing songwriting is still displayed, but the new album doesn’t have quite the candor and quality of his first full-length.

On paper, this is the perfect time for a new Ruston Kelly album. Dying Star was the ideal album for a sad autumn (it came out in September), but Kelly’s demeanor is different with Shape & Destroy. Despite having a “rainbow in [his] mouth” on the excellent, bright opener In the Blue, he sounds more weathered than ever before. Kelly’s voice has gone from a warm rasp to a whiny shell of how he used to sound. With the exhausted and mediocre Alive, he paints an idyllic domestic situation where he’s sitting on the front porch as the sun sets while his partner cooks and sings John Prine, but the music here is telling a different story. The gravely guitars and cold synths give this tale a false tint, as if it’s a fantasy or a memory. The latter is certainly possible, as Kelly and his ex-wife Kelly Musgraves separated back in July.

Shape & Destroy is Kelly’s first album since sobering up in December of 2018, and it’s one of the most interesting thematic strands here. Mid-Morning Lament finds Kelly circling the drain, debating spiking his coffee but “knowing where that leads” over faded drumming and light harmonies. He ends a later verse playing guitar on his rooftop, capturing rainy, early morning sadness wonderfully. The snare drum bounce of Clean leads a standard autobiographical tune to a huge thematic climax: “Something circled in and pulled me out, so I got clean.” In the middle of an album of personal losses, that secretly triumphant moment feels like a genuine win. Kelly’s penchant for biblical touches pops up again on the closer, Hallelujah Anyway. The song’s church choir ambiance is genuinely touching, but it feels like a reminder of what Ruston Kelly should be embracing sonically. It’s a shame that his sophomore album often feels like a soggy, watered down version of his best qualities.