Ruston Kelly

REVIEW: Ruston Kelly “The Weakness”


Ruston Kelly — The Weakness

Break-up albums are full of tears, wails, recriminations, and maybe a little bit of realization. Not often, though, do they pause to ask, “Wait – what exactly the f@ck happened to us?” Last year, country megastar Kacey Musgraves released her first album post-divorce from Ruston Kelly, and star-crossed did just that while also looking for a way to find what’s next. Kelly has accepted the chance to do the same. On The Weakness, he examines his dissolved marriage through the lenses of his own drug addiction, mental health issues and plain old human failings. And, like his ex, he’s found that there’s something for him on the other side, even if whatever that is hasn’t quite crystallized yet.

In the process of writing The Weakness, Kelly did do at least one thing that you’d completely expect for a heartbroken singer-songwriter – he moved out of Nashville to a small Tennessee town and a home in need of much repair, initially giving himself enough to do to get away from writing music until he was ready to get back to it. The title cut, a slow burn of awakening, shows a man who can’t quite process what he’s lost – “I woke up dreaming of her face again/I hate the way I miss her torment” – while struggling to rein in his emotions – “I just wanna lose control/I wanna fly like I’ve never flown” – while perhaps actually preferring to give up all sense of command. As it builds, “The Weakness” begins to hint at the approach that Kelly and producer Nate Mercereau took toward building the sound of the record. Essentially just the two of them on every instrument (from acoustic guitar to samples and synths to the occasional French horn and flute), Kelly was pushing for a sound far bigger than the strummer he used to be (interestingly, Musgraves’ latest album also expanded her sound, albeit in a much different, melancholy pop direction).

While most of The Weakness was conceived in that small Tennessee bungalow, the first track completed for the record, “Mending Song” has its roots in another lonely-guy trope – the road trip. Composed on a baritone ukulele purchased during a sojourn to Joshua Tree, the song completes the first half of the record with hushed vocals, existential questions – “Something grew up twisted in me/Ripping all the seams” – and notes of hope – “I’ll carry every life I’ve lived into the next.” Kelly also addresses his internal twisted-ness in “Holy Sh!t,” the most organic-sounding track on the album, by admitting his tendency to self-sabotage – “When I get out of my way/Better things appear.” “St. Jupiter” is an acoustic strummer that acknowledges that “other” thing he helped sabotage by recalling an ill-fated trip to a garden store to buy flowers – “I remember when we bought ‘em/I complained cuz it was hot/If I could travel back in time/I’d just shut my mouth and let you shop.” Marriages – and divorces – are made of small moments like this.

But, like his erstwhile partner, anger isn’t what really fuels The Weakness – it’s more about regret and acceptance. “Let Only Love Remain” is the most wistful of ballads, featuring acoustic guitar and Mercereau’s subtle French horn, that acknowledges the difficulty of maintaining a marriage when fame comes calling – “But our love was thrown on a tidal wave/And we just lost sight of it.” Kelly, though, finds comfort in knowing that he (and she) put every bit of themselves into their relationship – “In spite of the tension…I wouldn’t trade in a moment/’Cuz I was fighting for something/I wanted with all of my heart.” Is it an answer to the question of what went wrong? Not exactly. But maybe fleshing out these thoughts into songs will help Kelly – or Musgraves, or even some of us – from messing it all up the same way a second time.

Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Cold Black Mile” – The hushed organ and elegiac tone of this hymn of grief and acceptance – “It might’ve taken everything/But it gave me back my life” – will sound especially haunting at the Ryman.

The Weakness was produced and engineered by Nate Mercereau, mixed by James Krausse and mastered by Paul Blakemore. All songs written by Ruston Kelly, with co-writing credits going to Tim Kelly, Calvin Knowles, Bryan Dawley, Juan Soloranzo, John Chong, Nate Mercereau, John Feldman and Matthew Koma. Additional musicians on the album include Mercereau (guitar, drums, bass, programming, guitar synthesizer, mellotron, glockenspiel, autoharp, slide guitar, harmonium, mandolin, French horn, keyboard synthesizer, violin, organ, drum synth, sampler, fretless bass, tenor guitar, flute, percussion, vocals) and Jarrad Kritzstein (vocals).

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Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Ruston Kelly “Shape & Destroy” is Vivid Picture of Wrestling One Day at a Time

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