Originally from South Carolina, Ruston Kelly was first taught to play the guitar by his father, pedal steel player Tim Kelly. At 17, he moved to Nashville to live with his sister, where he secured a publishing deal and wrote songs for several major artists. Last year he released his debut EP, Halloween, to critical acclaim and now he’s following it up with his first full-length record, Dying Star.
The album opens with Cover My Tracks, a midtempo song with twangy guitar and distorted, hazy vocals. There’s a real sense of weariness in Kelly’s vocal, which adds to the bittersweet lyrics, and I liked the contrast between the anthemic chorus and stripped-back final verse too.
This vibe continues throughout the first half of the record, which sees Kelly telling the tales of a cast of tragic characters who are resigned to keep repeating their mistakes. Songs such as Paratrooper’s Battlecry and Faceplant see their narrators admit defeat and an ability to change, with their 90s rock-influenced melodies contrasting with darker lyrics. However, there is the occasional flash of hope, such as the yearning, shimmering Mockingbird, where Kelly urges a lover not to give up. It’s oddly romantic, sweet and touching, and a nice contrast to some of the more downbeat songs on the album.
One thing which struck me throughout this album was Kelly’s outstanding storytelling. His subdued, downbeat delivery on songs such as Son Of A Highway Daughter and Blackout bring the lyrics to the fore and make you focus on the amount of detail and vivid imagery he packs in. Consequently, you find yourself being incredibly sympathetic to the song’s characters and it’s impossible not to be moved, whether that’s to anger or tears. There’s a desperate, aching loneliness to these tracks that Kelly captures brilliantly and consequently they’re incredibly emotional.
I mentioned before that this feels like an album of two halves, and the second part of the record is much more optimistic than the first. Songs like the lilting, folky Mercury and the delicate, piano-led Anchors provide a nice change of pace and showcase Kelly’s versatility. I also really liked how he plants ideas for later songs, such as the line ‘I’m a dying star in your junkyard heart’ on Mercury, which make you want to revisit the album again and again to try and unearth its secrets.
One particular standout track for me was Kelly’s version of Just For The Record. If that title sounds familiar, it’s because the same track – which Kelly wrote with Lucie Silvas – also appeared on Silvas’ album E.G.O. which was released last month. In Kelly’s hands, the song seems far more bittersweet and almost defensive compared to Silvas’ version – like a man trying to hide his true feelings with anger or by brushing them off – and the acoustic guitar and harmonica add a more traditional feel. That said, it’s still an incredibly emotional song and one I’d love to hear Kelly and Silvas duet together on some day. Other songs I loved were Big Brown Bus with its layered storytelling, strangely singalong chorus and gravelly vocals from Kelly, the twist ending and clever wordplay of Trying To Let Her, and Jericho’s 1960s vibe and message of resilience.
The album ends with the title track, which sees Kelly slipping back into old habits from earlier in the record. There’s a slow, languid feel about the song, which you could imagine playing whilst driving down a Californian highway, and I like the recurrent image of looking in the mirror which brings the record’s narrative together really well. The long instrumental sections and Kelly’s matter-of-fact vocals add to the sense of isolation too. Kelly then follows this up with Brightly Burst Into The Air, a short rhythmic song with a rich vocal and theme of acceptance and growth. It’s a positive note to finish the record on and leaves you with a feeling that there is light at the end of the tunnel
Overall Dying Star is a powerful, complex album that takes you on a journey. Kelly does an excellent job of balancing light and dark throughout and his husky vocals, traditional instrumentation and light-touch production mean that the rich, intricate lyrics are the star. It’s not the easiest album in the world to listen to, but those who are willing to invest their time in it will definitely be rewarded. This is an accomplished piece of work that’s sure to feature on plenty of best-of lists this year and catapult Kelly to the forefront of the new wave of traditional country and Americana stars.
Track listing: 1. Cover My Tracks 2. Mockingbird 3. Son Of A Highway Daughter 4. Paratrooper’s Battlecry 5. Faceplant 6. Blackout 7. Big Brown Bus 8. Mercury 9. Anchors 10. Just For The Record 11. Trying To Let Her 12. Jericho 13. Dying Star 14. Brightly Burst Into The Air Record label: Rounder Records Release date: 7th September 2018