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Ruston Kelly's Redemption, In A Constant State Of 'Shape & Destroy'

Aug 31, 2020
Originally published on August 28, 2020 7:00 am

When your breakthrough record is a post-sobriety look back, where do you go next? There's certainly no shortage of recorded music that covers the "before." Sometimes there's a clear line-in-the-sand in an artist's catalog; other times, there's no obvious intervention, no discernible divide. Nashville singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly's answer, Shape & Destroy, is more refinement than reinvention; a statement of purpose, it offers a path forward in which the process of recovery continues with resolve.

As an artistic introduction, 2018's Dying Star was a brutal thing of beauty. Unflinchingly honest, Kelly confronted the wreckage that past addictions wrought head on. As the name would imply, it's definitely dark – "I black out in a bar / I get high in my car," goes one line, "I took too many pills again" opens another track – but ultimately, it operates from a place of progress, looking back with clear eyes.

And that's where Shape & Destroy picks up. Building on Kelly's confessional template, it's a continuation of his own redemption story. As Kelly tells it in press material, the title comes from a phrase that came to him while free writing: "Shape the life you want by destroying what obstructs the soul." That duality – that creation sometimes requires some intentional destruction – is a guiding principle on the record.

Over the past few years, Kelly's taken to calling his music "dirt emo." It's a moniker that seemingly encompasses his own influences and listening habits, and neatly sums up his artistic M.O. Back in 2016, Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes produced his Halloween EP; on last year's Dirt Emo Vol. 1 collection, Kelly covered Blink-182 and My Chemical Romance. It's a millennial sort of mentality made possible by an older sibling and internet access: raised on Jackson Browne before his sister introduced him to Dashboard Confessional, Kelly then explored the stylings of Johnny Cash and the Carters, which led him to Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly.

Some of Shape & Destroy's most powerful moments are its most simple. While Dying Star revealed some experimental production impulses (see the vocal effects of "Son of a Highway Daughter"), Shape & Destroy is more straightforwardly singer-songwriter material. On "Alive," Kelly sets a domestic scene: front porch sitting as the sun's setting, with your partner singing John Prine in the kitchen. "Changes" wrestles with the difficulty of charting a new course, even when you know it's right ("it's easier to say than it is to do"); later, in "Under the Sun," Kelly declares with determination, "There are brighter days still to come." Perseverance requires commitment to stay the course; anchored in hope, there's an almost spiritual element throughout the record.

In another songwriter's hands, some of the album's truisms could feel trite, but Kelly's never been one to shy from harsh realism and ugly truth. Within Shape & Destroy's sparse settings, dirt emo means that Kelly embraces a heart-on-sleeve sentimentalism. Even in his covers, there's a current of emotionality: Kelly leans into an all-in style of performance that feels unguarded. "If you mean it when you say it, it'll live on through that sentiment in other people," Kelly told NPR earlier this month when discussing his take on Wheatus' cult hit "Teenage Dirtbag." "It's the same reason why any song that has a timeless quality to it remains timeless: It's authentic."

Authenticity as a descriptor can feel pretty corny – or worse, expose loaded biases. But on Shape & Destroy, Kelly shows just what that timelessness looks like, exploring both base and noble human instincts as forward momentum. There's a vulnerability that comes with exposing one's lived experience for all to see; it's that expression that prevents the earned wisdom of Shape & Destroy from becoming mere platitude.

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