Perhaps befitting this most chaotic of years, albums about break-ups and sobriety seem to be all over Americana – the combination of missing something while also holding out some degree of hope for a tenuous future seems appropriate right about now. Courtney Marie Andrews’ Old Flowers and Neil Young’s Homegrown represent the former, while American Aquarium’s Lamentations is one of the latter. Ruston Kelly’s sophomore release, Shape & Destroy, is the singer-songwriter’s very personal story of cleaning up, but it also arrives tinged unexpectedly with break-up sadness.
In his songwriting, Kelly is unsparing in his assessment of himself and his addictions. “In The Blue,” which leads off the record, signals his determination to overcome those addictions on his own terms – “I’ll learn how to mend/Don’t need a hospital I ain’t broken.” Like much of the album, the tune rides on Kelly’s acoustic guitar and piano and keys from co-producer Jarrad K, who’s given Kelly’s rough-hewn songs a slick finish.
That’s not to say that there’s no room for nods to traditional country on the album. “Mid-Morning Lament” is a sober man’s version of “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” The setting is similar – essentially, just trying to make it safely to noon. “I wanna spike my coffee, but I know where that leads” becomes “So what I spiked my coffee? Maybe I’ll never learn.” It’s a vivid picture of what so many wrestle with, living one day at a time. Like many of the tracks on Shape & Destroy, Kelly’s father, Tim “TK” Kelly, chips in with some excellent steel guitar work, adding old-school angst to his song’s modern-day country lamentations.
While we’re on the topic of family, it can’t go unmentioned that Kelly and wife Kacey Musgraves announced their intent to divorce last month. Musgraves provided background vocals for the record, but the true tearful moment comes in “Alive,” Kelly’s thank-you note of sorts to his wife. He credits her for his sobriety and his very survival – “And it’s all because of you/There ain’t nothin’ left to do/But say you need me.” But it’s the last verse of the song that turns the most bittersweet: “You’re cooking something in the house/Singing John Prine/What a beautiful thing/To be alive.” It’s a painful reminder of how much has been lost already this year.
For the most part, though, Kelly keeps the focus on his own fight. This is best exemplified in the sequencing of “Brave” and “Clean” on the record. The former is a spare, mostly acoustic track (much like he’s performed it live), in which he finds unexpected courage in his recovery while acknowledging the damage he’s done – ”I’ve already lost some years/To addiction and the fear/That I was worthless” (that particular acceptance of mortality is one of the bravest admissions a man can make). “Clean” is more uptempo, but it doesn’t shrug off the difficulties of recovery – “I hate that it still lingers/I hate that it’s this hard.” But that struggle is what gives Kelly the will to speak up – “I just came here with the word/That you can learn from all the pain.” It’s a lesson that so many, in different stages of recovery from whatever pains them, need to hear.
Shape & Destroy was produced by Jarrad K and Ruston Kelly, recorded by Gena Johnson, mixed by Jarrad K and mastered by Greg Calbi. All songs were penned by Kelly, except for “Closest Thing,” co-written with Ashley Ray. Musicians on the album include Tim Kelly (steel guitar, background vocals), Jarrad K (electric guitar, 12 string acoustic, piano, Rhodes, Hammond M3, percussion, student bells, background vocals), Eli Beaird (bass, background vocals), Eric Slick (drums, percussion, background vocals), and Abby Kelly, Kacey Musgraves and Gena Johnson (background vocals).
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