Ruston Kelly’s second full-length album, Shape & Destroy, isn’t just a collection of songs about personal transformation. It’s a record with personal transformation threaded through its DNA and oozing from its cracks. It feels like it’s been left to soak overnight in the power of complete and total reinvention. It’s imbued with the trials and the triumphs that happen along the road to meaningful change.
Kelly’s been through it, man. For years, he struggled mightily with drug addiction, quitting and relapsing “probably eight times,” he told CMT.com in 2019. For now, at least, he’s on the other side, and he can look back or he can look ahead but either way he feels it deeply. On Shape & Destroy, he documents those feelings, often in plain language and always framed by his brand of well-crafted and memorable folk-pop-rock.
This is not the first time Kelly’s journey has been captured in song. His debut—2018’s Dying Star—showcased his considerable melodic gifts and fearless honesty as it explored Kelly’s trip to and from rock bottom. It’s an album that’s equal parts harrowing and heartening, and it pointed the way for Kelly to deliver on his enormous promise as an artist.
Shape & Destroy finds him on the right path, but not yet out of the woods. Nowhere is this more clear than in two back-to-back songs—“Alive” and “Changes”—that examine Kelly’s journey from two very different perspectives. “Looking at the flowers coming up from the ground through all of the rubble of everything that I tore down,” he sings in “Alive,” a slow-burning love song to life (and a supportive partner). One track later, however, he kicks off the strummy, upbeat “Changes” buried in the rubble. “What the hell am I doing down here?” Kelly sings. “I thought that I was finally in the clear. All it takes is once to make your demons reappear.”
Later in “Changes,” he begs that supportive partner—now teary-eyed and disappointed—not to give up on him, and at this point it seems negligent not to acknowledge Kelly’s marriage to country star Kacey Musgraves, whom he has credited many times for helping him maintain his sobriety. The two wed in late 2017, and Kelly was by Musgraves’ side last year when her album Golden Hour won four Grammy awards, including Album of the Year. They filed for divorce in July.
It’s impossible to definitively draw a line between Musgraves and lyrics on Shape & Destroy, of course, but it’s also hard to separate the two. Album opener “In the Blue” is another bright and catchy folk-rock redemption song that follows lots of lines about searching and mending with this couplet: “I’ve got a woman, her hands are gold / Carries the sun to me when I’m cold and afraid.” A short, slower number called “Closest Thing” doubles as a love song and hymn of gratitude to … someone, perhaps Musgraves even still: “I was a worn-out hallelujah. By slight of hand, you saved me from myself.” And in the aforementioned “Alive,” Kelly concludes that life is good “and it’s all because of you, my love” before ending with a verse so vivid, it’s basically a plane ticket to Nashville:
Front porch in the silence
Not a sound on the street
And on the horizon, the sun is setting pink
You’re cooking something in the house
Singing John Prine
What a beautiful thing to be alive
More often, though, Kelly sings loudly and clearly about himself, his sobriety, the temptations that threaten to topple them both and the promise of salvation that inches closer every day. He does that in a variety of ways. For example, “Radio Cloud” embodies the made-up genre Kelly concocted for himself—“dirt emo”—with its crisp production and pop-punk chorus that has earned comparisons to both blink-182 and The Buggles. If it doesn’t grab you on first listen, rest assured that it will eventually. Elsewhere, he closes Shape & Destroy with a 92-second epilogue of echo and choral vocals called “Hallelujah Anyway” that, like Dying Star standout “Son of a Highway Daughter,” hints at his willingness to experiment with sounds not often associated with roots music.
In between are a handful of songs straight from Kelly’s wheelhouse: warm, intimate, earnest and emotionally raw, built around an acoustic guitar and set to midtempo. “Mid-Morning Lament” features gorgeous swoops of steel guitar courtesy Kelly’s father, Tim. “Clean” runs on a shuffling rhythm and features some of Shape & Destroy’s most unvarnished lyrics about the persistence of addiction. Sonically, “Jubilee” stands out on the album, thanks to its breezy feel, old-soul bass line and droning keyboard hum. And on “Under the Sun,” Kelly’s punk/emo influence bleeds through big time, maybe even more so than on “Radio Cloud.”
Tucked in among all these tracks is a stunner of a song that Kelly’s team released last spring, before Shape & Destroy had even been announced. It’s called “Brave,” and it’s the album’s sparsest tune—just six fingerpicked strings and Kelly’s voice, constantly on the verge of cracking as he considers how people see him and what he hopes they’ll say about him when he dies: that he kept his promises, that he tried to be selfless and that he didn’t take his loved ones for granted.
It’s a heavy song even before the second verse:
I’ve already lost some years
To addiction and the fear
That I was worthless
So I hope before I go
I get to see my garden grow
Tall and purposed
What a difference a couple of years, hard work, personal reflection and loving, supportive relationships make. Where Dying Star offered only glimmers of hope that Kelly’s garden would someday flourish, Shape & Destroy is a modestly verdant landscape as far as the eye can see—maybe not “tall and purposed” quite yet, but healthy, happy and headed that way.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.