Ruston Kelly opens his debut album with a bleary-eyed pop song slathered in pedal steel. His voice is as weathered as you’d expect from an alt-country singer, but it beams with bright clarity on a chorus that serves as a thesis statement of sorts: “And it’s a long way back to California/ And I ain’t got time to cover my tracks/ How the hell do I return to normal/ If I’m always ending up flat on my back?” Kelly’s young marriage to Kacey Musgraves was the inspiration for this year’s transcendent Golden Hour, but his own record zeroes in on a different phase of life and the way its aftereffects continue to linger now that he’s in a better place.
Dying Star mostly chronicles the years of hard living that preceded his present heart-eyes-emoji moment. There are love songs, like the steady-rolling “Mockingbird” and the gentle simmer “Trying To Let Her,” but even those tackle the struggle to turn away from cynicism and embrace affection at face value. Lead single “Jericho” is about finding purpose in this desolate world and clinging to love while it lasts. What passes for lighter fare is always colored by the darkness Kelly appears to have escaped.
The bruised and battered soul of Dying Star is a run down the middle of the tracklist from “Paratrooper’s Battlecry” to “Just For The Record,” a sustained barrage of substance abuse, life-wrecking misbehavior, and end-of-my-rope heartbreak. These are hearty acoustic bar-band ballads that evoke dark rooms lit only by neon signs — or perhaps the light at the end of the tunnel, given that Kelly’s aim for the album is ultimately redemptive. Still, the low points here are pretty damn bleak. On “Blackout,” sadly swaying minor chords find Kelly coping with a breakup in the most self-destructive ways: “Most of the time it hurts/ But I’ve found a few things that work/ I black out in a bar, I get high in my car/ I drive ’round in circles ’til I’m seein’ stars/ I get so fucked up to forget who you are/ I dumb down my head so I can’t feel my heart.”
So although Dying Star is immaculately produced and low-key experimental by Nashville singer-songwriter standards — the iridescent a cappella that comprises the first half of “Son Of A Highway Daughter” plays like Ryan Adams gone full Bon Iver — this is a proper tears-in-beers album in the grand country tradition. Except along with the beer comes pills, weed, and passing references to even harder drugs. (On “Faceplant,” all he can say for himself is, “It ain’t like I’m trippin’ on the corner for crack.”) The man does not pull any punches; it’s no wonder on the title track he confesses, “I went way too far this time.”
Via email last week, Kelly shared a statement of purpose:
I wanted to make a very human record. A raw transcription of a particular time in my life. From ugly to hopeful and intensely honest. I didn’t want it to be drenched in the suffering that inspired the songs, but rather feel free and releasing. Sonically, I think this was achieved through sparseness, which allowed for that intent to come through. Also, the most emotional instrument on this record, steel guitar, is played by my father, who lived these songs out with me in real life.
The resulting record is an emotional powerhouse, a collection of songs that sometimes leans on genre clichés but ultimately transcends them. If you’ve ever had a taste for somber country songs capable of ripping you apart, you ought to make time for Ruston Kelly’s opening blast. Stream Dying Star in full below ahead of its release this Friday.
Dying Star is out 9/7 on Rounder Records. Pre-order it here.