The short version: Ruston Kelly draws from a dark underbelly of emotions to craft one of the best country albums of 2018.
The long version: Ruston Kelly admittedly drew more suspicion from me than he did interest. Stop me if you’ve heard this before – an indie-country singer who adopts an elitist attitude toward mainstream country also draws critical acclaim from the usual country music outlets without it really crossing over otherwise.
It was the background surrounding Kelly’s album that made his newest album, Dying Star worthy of checking out. Reportedly inspired by an actual downward spiral he encountered before picking up the pieces again, Kelly’s album looked to bring the firepower needed for a great country album. Top it all off with background vocals from Kacey Musgraves, Caitlyn Smith, Natalie Hemby and Joy Williams along with pedal steel contributions from his father, Tim “TK” Kelly, and Dying Star was definitely starting to look like it was at least worth checking out.
Not to make it personal, but I feel like I should apologize for carrying my doubts about even listening to this album, because Dying Star is absolutely fantastic and definitely a great late addition to the best country albums of 2018. It may be a dark listen, but it’s also elegant and contemporary without pandering to current trends. On a pure compositional level, Dying Star is a beautiful work that certainly cements Kelly as a force to be reckoned with.
The album’s greatest asset is its attention to detail and atmosphere, with lyrics that are poetic in nature and also given the necessary space and buildup to breathe and turn into gorgeous sounding tunes. Even the vocal layering surrounding the opener, “Cover My Tracks” seems to only serve the lonely spirit of it all, and that sentiment can only be emphasized on the a capella, vocoder led, “Son Of A Highway Daughter.” The mix across the board is fairly standard – warm, rich acoustics bolstered by pedal steel, hints of banjo, blasts of harmonica and tremolo effects all used to create an enriching sound. It’s how the mixes are often used that makes Dying Star so effective.
“Mockingbird” is able to connect based solely on atmosphere, with the hints of liquid banjo and acoustic leading up to an almost cathartic harmonica solo – and this is before the verses even begin. Going back to “Son Of A Highway Daugther,” the bridge is only intensified in instrumentation and tempo to sing one line multiple times, yet it feels like it adds to the track rather than distracts from it or takes away from the beauty of it.
Further on, “Anchors” adopts a dreamier atmosphere with added reverb, something that connects beautifully with the nautical imagery and theme of the track. The title track brings in some nice bass to create a moodier sound that oddly gives the track a reflective edge as well.
Dying Star isn’t just all show though. What makes it so great is that it combines the full package of lyricism, production, and vocals into one, with the mixes often serving to set the mood for the stories at hand. On the surface, Dying Star could appear to be a one-trick pony thematically, but Kelly brings in multiple perspectives to keep it from getting stale. Sometimes the tracks are personal, yet other times you’ll hear something like “Paratrooper’s Battlecry” told from the perspective of a solider suffering from PTSD who feels abandoned.
And yes, Dying Star is a somber album overall, but it doesn’t wallow in its misery. If anything, it finds Kelly almost content with all of it, as if he uses the destruction to his advantage to rebuild his life or just find comfort in the loneliness. Him destroying himself on “Faceplant” feels like more he’s turning his vices into something beneficial. It’s the only way he can hold on, oddly. A journey to something new on “Big Brown Bus” comes with the self-awareness that things could go either way for him. He could find something better or fail, but it’s the former outcome that helps him at least try and take the chance.
“Mockingbird” finds him early on wishing for a little light in his life, and as the album moves on, Kelly does find redemption in the form of a lover. “Trying To Let Her” is one of the plainer tracks here in all areas, but it’s important to the thematic arc. “Jericho” sees him finally letting down his guard to try again at love. The title track finds him willing enough to finally give in and try love again, even with the awareness that he might have to go back through his journey of pain and redemption all over again if it doesn’t work out. It keeps the hopeful message though that if you don’t at least try, what’s the point? It’s what makes me wish “Brightly Burst Into The Air” was longer, as it seemed to head in a nice direction before ending abruptly and making the title track feel like the true end of the album.
On the note of criticisms though, certain tracks in the latter half of the project feel a bit undeveloped or undercooked. The main problem comes with these tracks just needing an extra verse to drive the story home. “Anchors” carries an excellent melody, but it’s an example of this. “Mercury” is as well.
Speaking of melodies though, the warmer instrumental mix means that these tracks are sticky without necessarily being “catchy.” Kelly makes the most of a limited vocal range, stretching himself out to his limits without feeling overbearing. If anything, his rugged delivery adds a sense of lived-in character to these stories. Most of these tracks too always feature one line that’ll stick in your mind afterward. “Build me a castle, Maria I cry” from “Paratrooper’s Battlecry” and the turnaround of the hook on “Just For The Record” are a few highlights, with the latter having enough emotion in it to really be a gut-punch to the listener. This is one of the most melodically rich albums of the year.
And despite a few nitpicks, Dying Star is an absolutely fantastic project that I’m sorry I got to so late. It’s elegant while also able to keep its darkness, and Kelly pours himself into every track here, with lyrics that set scenes and adopt multiple perspectives to liven the thematic richness. Bravo all around.
- Favorite tracks: “Paratrooper’s Battlecry,” “Mockingbird,” “Son Of A Highway Daughter,” “For The Record,” “Dying Star”
- Least favorite track: … maybe “Brightly Burst Into The Air,” but even then, it’s intentionally short