Album Review: Ruston Kelly – ‘The Weakness’

There’s something uncomfortable about the way Ruston Kelly albums release at just the right moments.

It’s uncomfortable even just saying that, given that for as many personal connections as we forge with an artist’s work, ultimately, that resonance has to stem from them and for them first and foremost. Even still, I know I’m not the only one who found Dying Star during a dark period in 2018 and latched onto it tighter because of the circumstances, a record full of burnout that had to stumble toward the finish line anyhow. And that secret shared connection had to be at least somewhat amplified during the release of Shape & Destroy in 2020, a brighter, more optimistic record that still sought to shake old demons – now within the clear but never quite comfortable, in other words.

But it was hard to gauge where he’d turn next. And yes, I refer to the aftermath of his divorce from Kacey Musgraves when I say that, but it’s also more than that. Kelly did, after all, say that The Weakness wasn’t so much a divorce album as it was an album recorded while his divorce happened. And given the relative structure and stability found through his past work, I’m certainly inclined to believe it.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my concerns with the singles ahead of the album’s release, not so much in terms of quality but in terms of presentation. They’re messier, heavier, and, while fair and appropriate to indulge in, did leave an odd taste in my mouth.

And indeed, with The Weakness proper, don’t expect this to adopt the same country-leaning flair of Kelly’s past two projects, at least not to the same quaint degree. I’ve seen certain critics cite this as a record that offers a more accessible pivot because of that, which I find entirely dismissive, given how much Kelly’s magnetism could pop even on those quieter moments (then again, it’s nothing new with how critics often give country music a sidelong glance anyway, sad as that is). If anything, it’s hard not to hear this in tandem with Shape & Destroy, another record that got wrongly labeled as a divorce album but was really more about maintaining stability in better circumstances, the only difference here now being an actual test of that stability.

But that album was measured and evenly paced, enough to where it could blend together at points even despite some incredible standouts. This … well, it’s scattered amidst Kelly’s usual genre melting pot in sound, delivery, and content, a record that sometimes even feels crushed under its own weight. Indeed, it’s both a feature of this album through Nate Mercereau’s production and a crutch I had to warm up to with “The Weakness” and “Mending Song,” which finds Kelly fighting against the mountains of reverb slathered all over, well, mostly everything here. It’s not quite the consistent element of this album I had thought it would be, thankfully. And indeed, it is thesis statements like those where it now makes sense to me, amplifying the crushing struggle of actually having to confront promises made to himself on past projects in trudging forward toward a new day.  

Still, that doesn’t mean I’m wild about the moments where he leans on his thin falsetto to support the fluttery, synthetic feel of the material on tracks like “Better Now” or “Breakdown,” even if that latter has a ridiculously infectious melodic hook I haven’t been able to shake. He’s sounded more fried and haggard with every release, and while I can’t deny that hasn’t continued with this album, in a weird sense it feeds well into the feeling of fighting on regardless of where it’s going to lead, because anything is better than slipping back into old habits and leaning on old vices.

And that’s the paradoxical twist with this album. It’s messier, bigger, broader, and splashier, and while there are plenty of moments that don’t work – the oddly sharp, clumsy mixing on “St. Jupiter,” the washed-out haze of tracks like “Let Only Love Remains” and “Dive” that neuters their dramatic impact, and the gaudy synthetic elements as a whole, really – the moments that do succeed benefit not only from the extra spark, but also Kelly’s naturally excellent instincts for sharp melodic hooks and grooves. I love the way “Hellfire” begins with its muted, liquid keys in its moment of vulnerability where it’d be easier to slip back into darkness, and then erupts vocally and sonically to support how that’s not going to happen. And on a simpler level, even admist the personal chaos there’s a certain rattle and sing-a-long charm to tracks like “Holy Shit,” “Breakdown,” and especially “Michael Keaton,” not quite the sole moment of levity here but certainly the most bizarre one.

But it’s through the last two tracks where I think the album truly shines, ending as the album began in its direct confrontation of its darkness, only with greater resilience at hand. There’s something alluring about that creaking piano melody of “Wicked Hands,” but even the spare, crushing organs dominating “Cold Black Mile” feel oddly sobering yet cathartic.

I do want to circle back to the point about ending as the album began, though, because for as much as I’ve danced around conversations surrounding lyrics and themes over the changes in production, this is still consistent with the foundation Kelly’s built for himself. But it’s understanding that foundation and realizing how easy it is for it to crumble that makes this album feel all the more urgent, not only in how crushing it can be to care at all about slipping on the opening title track or “Hellfire,” but also in finding new, better ways to support that system. It’s why I find resonance in the few more direct cuts here like “Let Only Love Remain” and “Mending Song,” the former track the sole one to address the divorce, though in a way where Kelly can understand why the marriage didn’t work – let only love remain to forge a new relationship and clearer path forward that he can look back on years later with pride. The latter, on the other hand, is the sort of deeply personal, slice-of-life-focused song that finds courage and strength through reflections of old lessons and mistakes, using them not as impediments but as reminders that there is a way to mend, slow as it may come. Beyond that, it’s also about using the best parts of even the darkest memories to keep that focus balanced and never hopeless that it won’t restore itself.

It is, admittedly, much broader outside of that. It doesn’t take much to guess what “Breakdown” is about, and “Dive” is the predictable but welcome moment where Kelly learns to trust both himself again and a new partner. But there’s also “Micheal Keaton,” where that pent-up irritation bursts in dark but hilarious fashion, complete with that Multiplicity reference and all. And with “Holy Shit,” he acknowledges that this isn’t new ground for him and that he’s got to find the strength to move forward once again, where even if he’ll never find true stability for long or for good, he’s willing to take the steps to get as close as possible each and every time, no matter how difficult. But if anything, it’s why I find “Wicked Hands” so gutting, where he admits how trying to be the better person he thought his partner deserved just wasn’t truly reflective of him, and that a change to truly get better has to be an individual journey first and foremost. And then to segue into “Cold Black Mile,” knowing that past mistakes won’t be mended but that despite the loneliness you know you’re still capable of more … damn it, he’s got a way of bringing catharsis to anyone even when it’s just intended for him.

So, if the question is whether I enjoy this as much as Dying Star or Shape & Destroy … well, it’s tricky. Dying Star probably struck the best overall balance even despite its more flagrant downward spirals, but I do think there’s more at stake here than Shape & Destroy in actually putting Kelly’s fortitude to the test. Even despite the more obvious production issues here, I’m willing to call this a top-tier favorite for the year, if only because there’s always something powerful in hearing how even-keeled Kelly’s journeys to recovery are despite the odds to get there. He could have given in to the weakness, but I’m glad he found new strengths instead.

  • Favorite tracks: “Hellfire,” “Mending Song,” “Michael Keaton,” “Breakdown,” “Holy Shit,” “Wicked Hands,” “Cold Black Mile”
  • Least favorite track: “Dive”

Buy or stream the album.

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