ALBUM REVIEW: Ruston Kelly – ‘Dying Star’

Described as “a document of self-destruction and salvation”, ‘Dying Star’ is the first full-length album release from Nashville-based rising star and Rounder Records artist, Ruston Kelly. You may be familiar with him as Kacey Musgraves’ other half, but Kelly has established himself as a hugely talented songwriter and artist in his own right, even gaining support from Rolling Stone in the process. There’s no expense spared with this album, as Kelly has enlisted the help of Natalie Hemby and The Civil Wars’ Joy Williams, as well as working with experienced producer Mike Mogis. The result is a refreshingly authentic, honest and incredibly easy-on-the-ear collection of songs which could provide the launchpad for future stardom.

Kelly recorded the album in El Paso, Texas, accompanied by the aforementioned group of multi-talented musicians, including his own father, Tim, on pedal steel, who also plays in his live band. “My dad’s unlike any steel player I’ve ever heard—it definitely sounds like stars when he’s playing, so I knew I needed him to be on the album,”. Instrumentally, the album is sublime, with a creative intricacy that takes the listener away to another place for 53 minutes of bliss.

Lead single ‘Mockingbird’ has played a big role in the promotion of the album, accumulating nearly half a million Spotify streams to date. And it isn’t just one of the highlights of the project, it’s one of the best Americana releases of the year, period. It stands alone from much of the album in terms of its lyrical content, written from the perspective of a hopeless romantic expressing the depth of his love – “gonna write a book and put your name on every page”. The organic nature and rawness of the production, combined with the anthemic chorus will have you hooked on the first listen; this style of music doesn’t come much better.

The way the storytelling ebbs and flows from start to finish is so intriguing and keeps the listener guessing, track-by-track. We have the image of unbearable despair painted in ‘Blackout’ (“I black out in a bar, get high in my car, I drive round in circles till I’m seeing stars”), juxtaposed with ‘Faceplant’ which puts a positive, playful spin on a similar tale of addiction. These songs are written from experience too; Kelly had his own battle with addiction which brought time in rehab and an overdose in 2016. They’re written from the heart from someone who, you get the feeling, has lived every word.

If you’ve heard Lucie Silvas’ latest album, ‘E.G.O.’, you might be familiar with the gorgeous piano ballad ‘Just For The Record’. Kelly has put his own spin on this one, adding some of that wonderful pedal steel and generally more of an acoustic vibe, as well as Kacey Musgraves on backing vocals for some flawless harmonies… not a bad addition to any song if you ask me. It’s such a heart-breaking scenario of someone feeling like they didn’t fulfil everything that a relationship could have been, and Kelly’s gritty vocal delivery conveys the raw emotion to perfection. It’s another one of the big highlights on the album that will make you stop for a moment and contemplate after the first listen.

Other standouts include the gentle and stunningly-written ‘I’m Trying To Let Her’ (Sam Outlaw-esque, melodically), the soulful title track ‘Dying Star’ and the piano-led ‘Big Brown Bus’. But, in truth, it’s one of those albums that’s difficult to pick apart. Just play it from front to back and appreciate its consistent quality; there are real timeless classics to be found throughout.

On the theme, Kelly has said “A lot of my music is focused on suffering, or trying to understand the human condition through the lens of suffering,” and his approach to addressing challenging topics is artistic, creative and as honest as it comes. This isn’t an album with any aspirations for radio play or following trends, it’s a collection of deeply personal songs which will connect with, and inspire listeners in different ways.

There’s no doubt that ‘Dying Star’ will feature in plenty of ‘Best Of’ lists at the end of the year. It’s proof that if you dig a little deeper below the surface of mainstream country music, there are some true gems to be discovered, and this album is full of them. Ruston will be making his way to the UK in November to open up for The Wandering Hearts, a show which you most definitely won’t want to miss.

Dan Wharton
@LifeInASong_Dan