Ruston Kelly‘s Dying Star is a deep bruise. It’s the kind that’s the size of a grapefruit. There are the varying shades of ruby red and dark violet encompassed by a field of yellowing browns and just the hints of light green. It looks like deep space. You can’t help but press down on it just so you can feel the relief that comes when you let off. It’ll fade away as it heals, but it takes time. And some take longer than others.
On Dying Star, Kelly guides us through past trials, tense adversity, personal battles, love gone awry and drug abuse. It’s as heart-on-a-sleeve as they come. A flood of raw and intense emotions coat Kelly’s self-deprecating ballads and late-night benders. Still, this isn’t a “woe is me” sobfest. Kelly is rarely if ever, heartbroken in a traditional sense on Dying Star. Rather, his melancholy tones and complex web of anxiety, shame, guilt and remorse stem from hours of self-medicating and inner reflection.
No one kicks himself when they’re down quite like Kelly. The first half of Dying Star, Kelly’s full-length debut album and follow-up to last year’s criminally underrated debut EP Halloween, finds Kelly hitting rock bottom. Just when you think he’s found a new low, he doubles down and shows you a new high score for falling down.
Down in a Hole
“A lot of these songs had come out before I’d decided to change my situation,” Kelly tells Wide Open Country. “It’s important to pull out, express and find meaning in something that may not be me anymore. That’s the beauty of being a songwriter and artist. You can express whatever you want in any way you want. You can become a character and don’t have to live it. It took me a minute to understand what that meant.”
These rock-bottom moments—everything from the ornamented “I’ve been down in a hole so long I don’t know if any love can fill it back up” on “Paratrooper’s Battlecry” and “when I polish off a handle, I laugh and I ramble about anything other than what I’ve been holding in,” on “Blackout” to the plainspokenness of “oh, it was a dark December, not even angels came around” on “Faceplant” and “and I might die on this highway, part of me wishes I would” on “Big Brown Bus”—stem from Kelly’s brutal honesty.
Dying Star may be a confessional for Kelly, but it doesn’t feel like diary entries. Rather, it plays out like dive bar poetry etched into a corner booth tabletop or Sharpied on a bathroom stall. In some sense, it feels spur-of-the-moment and off the cuff. It’s as if Kelly’s snapped a photograph with his iPhone after leaving a little bit of poetic graffiti only to turn it into a song.
All so often, we look at these moments as being refreshing due to their candidness. It’s an artist being direct, and in some sense, being a reporter on the scene. That often takes a toll though. One can only take so many drunken whiskey trips, blacked out benders, pill-popping episodes and the like. Still, Kelly’s self-medicating lines aren’t spurred on by a “sex, drugs and rock & roll” lie.
When Kelly sings “it feels like I’m cursed when the drugs don’t work so I bought a statue of Jesus,” on the anxiety-fueled “Paratrooper’s Battlecry or “I can’t take the pain of being alone” on the midnight haunting “Mercury,” it’s built around unfiltered angst and misery. It’s night sweats and restlessness tossing and turning. It’s the blue hues of a muted TV glowing in the corner of a room.
“For such a long time, I couldn’t separate myself from my creativity,” adds Kelly. “It’s essentially how I’d made sense of the world. That’s where I found myself. Once I let go, I realized I could let these just be moments of time. It made for a better and clearer perspective on what this record meant for me and what I thought it was thematically. It’s what I needed to say to close the book on that chapter. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t have gotten clean.”
That’s what makes Dying Star such a compelling journey. We don’t just see Kelly kicking rocks down on Purgatory Road. It’s a slow climb out of the abyss, but it takes place. While songs such as “Faceplant,” “Blackout” and standout single “Mockingbird” may be cries out for help, it’s on songs like “Just For the Record,” “Trying To Let Her” “Jericho” and so on where Kelly begins to pick himself up.
We still hear the shivers and feel the scars of a period in Kelly’s life here, but more than anything, there’s a sense of forgiveness that rings out. That’s the key to Dying Star‘s beauty. Kelly’s ascension begins with his ability to love himself again. It’s redemptive.
“You have to deal with the past so you can have enough strength to launch yourself into ascension,” says Kelly. “It’s the classic Phoenix story. I wanted it to feel like there was a death happening, but also something being born out of this.”
Walls Were Built to Scale
He makes strides on “Just For The Record” with “I don’t blame you for the fact that you blame me and I won’t hate you if you want to forget me.” He owns up to past discretions and admits his faults. But you don’t see him turn to a bottle to use as a crutch. There’s still that raw emotional outpouring with “maybe these are just a sorry man’s words” but it doesn’t come at a price.
“I feel like ‘what is artistic expression if you aren’t completely transparent with how you feel,'” says Kelly. “That always came out as being brutally honest lyrically and musically as possible. To me, art is like an x-ray. You have insight into someone. Why hold back? I feel like we crave to experience other people’s lives. So often in daily life, we hold back how we really feel. That’s my goal as an artist —to be completely honest and raw. It helps me cope with those feelings.”
Kelly says that’s in part due to his admiration for Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.
“It’s always for the largest part, been a stream of conciseness,” adds Kelly. “The songs feel like they’re already there and I just have to pull them out. Don’t overly believe that you’re constructing something scholarly here. Don’t think people are going to be wowed by it. Just get your emotions out.”
That cathartic process heals old wounds. Still, Kelly reminds us that it’s OK to fall apart and break down. It’s a part of the human condition. On the mesmerizing title track, he sings “I’m a dying star, front seat of your car. Will you brave the cold and come find me falling apart?”
A Vibrant Sonic Palette
It’s an intense and intimate scene and slowly builds and drifts. That’s largely due to a swell of emotion brought on by an emotionally-charged pedal steel lament played by Kelly’s father, Tim “TK” Kelly. It’s important to realize Dying Star isn’t just Ruston’s album. In many respects, it’s TK’s as well.
More times than not, we only hear a singer/songwriter’s emotional swells. By all means, it’s their album, lyrics and direction. What makes Dying Star unique is how we’re also hearing TK’s fatherly perspective throughout. His pedal steel echoes aren’t just accents either. It’s a pivotal piece of the soundscape built by Kelly, producer Jarrad K (Weezer, Kate Nash) and company.
“I was listening to the masters and particularly his steel solo on ‘Dying Star,'” says Kelly. “It really profoundly moved me. I felt like it was some of the best pedal steel playing I’d ever heard. I asked him, ‘what were you drinking that morning.’ He said, ‘to be 100% honest with you, I played from a place where I remembered what it felt like watching you go through all that shit and how I felt helpless.’ He said he played how he felt watching his son suffer. Not only was it very moving, but it was very important to our relationship.”
There are nods to that fatherly support on songs like “Paratrooper’s Battlecry” with the line “I remember what TK said, ‘You can’t steer no boat by looking back at the wake.'”
It’s beautiful as it is haunting and chilling. Recorded at Sonic Ranch in the Far West Texas deserts outside of El Paso, Kelly and company build a vivid world for Dying Star to inhabit. It rattles on like lonesome train tracks and blossoms like desert flowers.
The Bon Iver inspired “Son of a Highway Daughter” echoes on like a ghostly Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen cut. The lovely “Trying To Let Her” blooms like a desert oasis. On the ode to Kelly’s wife, Kacey Musgraves, TK’s pedal steel cascades over like fresh water trying to replenish the soul. Singles “Jericho” and “Mockingbird” occupy the room adjacent to Ryan Adams‘ Heartbreaker. “Anchors” shimmers like a delicate lullaby. Despite being the album-closer, “Brightly Burst Into The Air” feels like Kelly’s liftoff.
“But you don’t have to understand everything all of the time. It don’t matter much if you don’t care what’s wrong or what’s right. But it’s sure is hell fair because we never burn out, we only brightly burst into the air,” sings Kelly. It’s graceful and lights the path out of the darkness.
Dying Star relies on Kelly’s ability to tell stories on two different realms. It’s in the brief moment of the song and how they tie into one larger theme.
“Those have always been my favorite kind of records,” says Kelly. “If you fall in love with an artist, you want to know what their story is. When an artist lays out their story through your favorite medium, there’s nothing better. Jackson Browne did that. Bon Iver does. I just love how you can create an entire story and chapter in your life. And at the end of your life, you’ll have a book.”
Dying Star is due out Sept. 7 via Rounder Records. You can pre-order Dying Star here. Additionally, Kelly embarks on his first headlining tour this fall. Nashville-based artist Katie Pruitt and English alt-country outfit The Wandering Hearts will support Kelly on different legs of the tour. For more information, click here.
Ruston Kelly Tour Dates
Sept. 7 — Nashville, Tenn. — Grimey’s New & Preloved Music
Sept. 14 — Nashville, Tenn. — AmericanaFest
Sept. 17 — London, U.K –The Slaughtered Lamb
Sept. 19 — Hamburg, Germany — Reeperbahn Festival
Sept. 23 — Indianapolis, Ind. — Holler On The Hill Festival
Oct. 13 — Austin, Texas — Austin City Limits Music Festival
Oct. 23 — New York, N.Y. — Mercury Lounge*
Oct. 25 — Allston, Mass. — Great Scott*
Oct. 26 – Philadelphia, Penn. — Boot & Saddle*
Oct. 27 — Vienna, Va. — Jammin Java*
Oct. 28 — Richmond, Va. – The Camel*
Oct. 30 — Atlanta, Ga. — Vinyl*
Oct. 31 — Charlotte, N.C. — Free Range Brewery*
Nov. 2 — Louisville, Ky. — Zanzabar*
Nov. 3 — Chicago, Ill. — Schubas Tavern*
Nov. 6 — Los Angeles, Calif. — Hotel Café*
Nov. 7 — Los Angeles, Calif. — Hotel Café* (SOLD OUT)
Nov. 8 — San Francisco, Calif. — Hotel Utah Saloon*
Nov. 10 — Portland, Ore. — Bunk Bar*
Nov. 11 — Seattle, Wash. — Sunset Tavern*
Nov. 14 — Denver, Colo. — Globe Hall*
Nov. 16 — Lincoln, Neb. — The Rye Room*
Nov. 17 — Davenport, Iowa — GAS Fest
Nov. 18 — St. Louis, Mo. — Blueberry Hill Duck Room*
Nov. 21 — Bath, U.K. — Komedia†
Nov. 22 — Brighton, U.K. — Patterns†
Nov. 24 — Exeter, U.K. — The Phoenix†
Nov. 26 — Norwich, U.K. — Norwich Arts Centre†
Nov. 27 — Ramsgate, U.K. — Ramsgate Music Hall†
Nov. 28 — London, U.K. — Islington Assembly Hall†
Nov. 30 — Cardiff, U.K. — The Globe†
Dec. 1 — Liverpool, U.K. — Arts Club Upstairs†
Dec. 3 — Newcastle, U.K. — The Riverside†
Dec. 4 — Edinburgh, U.K. — The Caves†
Dec. 5 — Birmingham, U.K. — Institute2†
† The Wandering Hearts