Saturday, December 15, 2018

album review: 'dying star' by ruston kelly

So look, I had my reasons for not getting to this for a while.

Yes, I had seen some of the critical acclaim, I had heard the hype from folks in my circle... and I'll admit the naturally suspicious side of me was overruling all of it. For those of you who don't know, Ruston Kelly is an indie country artist who put in a lot of work as a songwriter behind the scenes for the Josh Abbott Band and Tim McGraw before releasing his EP Halloween last year, which got him a deal on Rounder and the traction for this debut as well. What some might know him better for, though, is his high profile marriage to Kacey Musgraves, who with the critical acclaim and major Grammy nominations for Golden Hour is having a banner year of her own. And yes, fairly or not that did mean I was naturally suspicious of any of the critical hype, especially given that some of his recent career traction was likely driven off that connection - hell, her backing vocals are on the album! Nevertheless, given that he is still independent, the hype hasn't quite translated to commercial traction in the same way outside of rave critical reviews, and even then there are a few indie country outlets that seem wary of him, so I figured I might as well give this a chance, so what did we get on Dying Star?

So here's the strange thing: I've been relistening to Dying Star damn near constantly ever since I started putting together this review, almost to the point where I didn't actually want to put this review down because that would mean I'd have to move on to something else! And yeah, that means we're hitting the point where my assumptions were spectacularly wrong, because not only is Dying Star among the best country albums of the year, if not the best, it's handily better than Golden Hour across the board and highlights a lot of the elements I kind of wish were on that album! Hell, it might just be one of the best debut albums of the entire year, bringing the sort of fully formed confidence balanced with raw emotive vulnerability that resonates incredibly deeply with me, especially in 2018 - this is an album caught in the throes of bleary-eyed burnout that can't trust itself to make the right decisions but is still trying to make something work regardless. 

And we have to start with Ruston Kelly himself - and honestly, while I was immediately onboard with his vocal timbre, I can see some being a little hesitant. The most immediate comparisons within country are Evan Felker's or Jason Isbell's slightly flatter, more nasal delivery where you can tell he's making the best of a limited range, but his belting also recalls a bit of Marcus Mumford, and the hangdog delivery definitely recalls some Ryan Adams and Frank Turner. And while the tighter multi-tracking on the opening song 'Cover My Tracks' will be perfectly agreeable - and I can't imagine anyone will complain about the subtle backing vocals from Kacey Musgraves, Natalie Hemby, Caitlyn Smith and Joy Williams creeping across certain songs like 'Just for The Record', 'Blackout', and 'Jericho' - what will surprise listeners is 'Son Of A Highway Daughter', which opens as with the sort of a capella piece overlaid with a vocoder that recalls nothing more than Imogen Heap's 'Hide And Seek'. And what stunning is how well it works! And I'm honestly not sure how the hell Kelly pulled it off - I came down pretty hard when Amanda Shires tried a similar tactic on To The Sunset earlier this year, but for Kelly it only seems to intensify the weird, echoing loneliness that characterizes the majority of this album and become possibly the first time a vocoder has been used well stylistically in country! And part of it likely comes down to Kelly's style of delivery - there's a yearning heart to his overextended, nasal tones of delivery that's not a natural fit to belting, so even echoed by a vocoder his natural timbre still cuts through, and when accented by the acoustic rushing groove, pedal steel, and touches of piano, it feels cohesive.

And really, the fact that Kelly can get away with such a production trick is emblematic of his approach to melodic composition and production as a whole: warm acoustics right the front with firm pedal steel supplementing the melody where needed - along with touches of shimmering tremolo patterns at the very back - live sandy drums and supple grooves but never to the point of overstatement, pianos and hints of organ for accents, and when he wants to push in a solo, that harmonica will come out blaring. But what won me over fast was Kelly's focus on mix dynamics in the composition, and there's a subtlety to otherwise straightforward tones or even melodies that I really admire. Take a song like 'Mockingbird' and how it builds a natural crescendo to that harmonica before the verses even begin, or the subtle touches of atmosphere to set the mood on 'Paratrooper's Battlecry', or how a song like 'Faceplant' isn't afraid to take a conventional country melodic structure on the verse before flipping things for a slightly darker hook. And this embrace of consistent tones as a whole but indulging in subtlety allows him to incorporate, say, some of the indie rock-leaning backing vocals behind 'Big Brown Bus' without feeling out of place, or the twinkling tones, subtle harmonica and brittle acoustics that lets 'Anchors' drift into ghostly territory that easily resembles the windswept sea within the lyrics, or the supple beauty of 'Trying To Let Her' with the hints of oily synth sounding just alien enough to make sense of the new feelings compared to the familiar pedal steel. And then there's the title track, which with its firmer bass presence and spare acoustics almost recalls a Lori McKenna song like 'The Lot Behind St. Mary's', and it's all the better for it. That being said, after an absolutely stellar seven songs opening the project, I will say that there are a few cuts on this album that can feel a little unfinished or could have at least afforded another verse or hook: 'Mercury' springs to mind, and while 'Brightly Burst Into The Air' was intentionally short, it's great enough that it easily could have gotten a second hook or a bridge or something! 

But great production and phenomenal melodies will only get you so far if the content isn't there - and if there's an area where Ruston Kelly cements himself as a presence to be reckoned with, it is here. Now granted, within indie country we've all heard plenty of songs about sadsack guys on the outskirts who are in the midst of a downward spiral, but usually it's coupled with some sort of swaggering bravado or the framing that this is some sort of spiritual test or that it's all being done to test someone's love - the archetypal example of this is Matt Woods' excellent song 'Deadman's Blues', at least to me in the 2010s. But what makes Ruston Kelly so damn intriguing is that there isn't really that sort of framing - any attempts at grandeur have long faded, the scope is noticeably smaller, and with the production only sporadically indulging in bombast, it serves to make many of these songs much more grounded and human - he's not tearing off on a bike or sports car or pickup truck, he's taking the big brown bus. And this isn't someone on the cusp of disaster for the first time - no, what makes Dying Star hit so damn hard is that our frontman has long accepted his ruin in drugs and alcohol, but it never feels precisely hopeless either. His golden years might be fluttering by on 'Cover My Tracks', but his surprise comes that he's able to get back to normal - you almost get the impression he'd wish for worse but worse isn't coming and even if it was he'd survive. That's what makes 'Paratrooper's Battlecry' such a stirring song, written from the perspective of a veteran abandoned by everyone and trying to heal from PTSD - the faded heroism still provides a glimmer to keep him going. 

And if you think all of this is playing merry hell on his relationships... well, obviously, but it's very telling that Kelly is self-aware enough to be bluntly honest about who is even drawn to men like him like on 'Mockingbird' - along with a healthy slice of guilt for it, which manifests most strongly on 'Anchors' - and then not shying away from consequences like on 'Faceplant'. And that's not saying he's immune to heartbreak - 'Blackout' shows exactly how men like him cope and none of it is healthy - and if I were to highlight a flaw, it'd be the single cover song on the album 'Just For The Record', where the writing just isn't quite as poetic in its post-breakup musings. But what gives Dying Star its true gutpunch comes in the final four cuts, mostly because it does give a glimpse of hope for something real and stable as Ruston Kelly can be more than the broken man of the rest of the album, but he has to allow himself to feel enough worth to be loved and be capable of moving beyond the past he's never truly cut free despite his wanderings. Indeed, he gets how much that hangdog exterior can be a defense mechanism against real emotional vulnerability, and while he's left enough doors open, the fight to not be crushed by the weight on his soul is a trying one indeed. And I really admire how this album doesn't hit a straight answer either by its ending where he retraces old haunts - you're not going to get all the answers, you'll get what's coming to you, but that sort of life is not burnt out, but a burst into the air, maybe forgotten but leaving enough light to linger and inspire a whisper or two of what was left behind - and that can be enough.

So in short - too late - again, I was way too late to the ballpark with this album. Ruston Kelly's Dying Star isn't just one of the best debuts of the year, it's the sort of project that entrenches a new artist in the scene with a defined style in writing and execution that deserves a ton of attention. I'm not sure it's the sort of project that leaves much room for repetition, but Dying Star does such a powerful job setting its scene and drawing forth emotion that it's won enough goodwill to see wherever Ruston Kelly goes next. And in case you can't tell, this is a 9/10, the highest of my recommendations, and absolutely a project that needs to be heard by more people before the end of 2018. If you haven't, stop wasting time and check this out - my god, it's so worth it.

No comments:

Post a Comment