Review: Ruston Kelly – Dying Star

On the surface, Ruston Kelly’s first full-length offering may be dismissed as just another cliché country release – Kelly’s southern twang dominates the unfailingly catchy tracks, which are backed predominantly by guitar and harmonica, with the odd mention of Texas thrown in for good measure.

But dig a little deeper and Kelly’s heart-wrenching personal stories of addiction and recovery begin to emerge, providing the album with depth and distinctiveness.

Take “Faceplant”, for example: the melody is easy to latch on to right from the beginning, where the opening guitar riff foreshadows the recurring verse tune before a tight structure of sing-song and repetitive lyrical structures is constructed. In paying closer attention to the vocals, however, it becomes evident that Kelly is actually detailing his struggle to cope with addiction and a traumatic break-up with refreshing honesty and eloquence.

The rest of the album mostly comprises tracks exploring the darkest moments of Kelly’s addiction; the heartbreaking “Anchors” exemplifies this in its description of having to let a loved one go: Over the water I can hear her calling my name / But I’ve got to watch her float away. Yet the more sobering tracks are lifted by auditory hints of hope, particularly “Brightly Burst Into Air”, the production of which Kelly credits as playing a huge part in his journey towards recovery.

Overall, the sequence flows succinctly to recount a difficult,yet worthwhile journey. But by focusing on the thematic and lyrical elements of the album I definitely do not seek to retract from its musical strength; indeed, the infectiousness of each track is a testament to Kelly as a musician. Having produced content for renowned acts like Tim McGraw and Josh Abbott Band – and citing Johnny Cash as a major influence – as well as features like Civil Wars’ Joy Williams, both Kelly and his latest musical project have enviable artistic foundations.

Each track is arranged so impeccably as to heighten the atmosphere of the narrative that Kelly relays. Opening belter “Jericho” delivers one of the strongest sets in the sequence; starting with only a gently-picked guitar solo accompanied by Kelly’s soft, husky voice, it steadily grows in volume and texture, before intertwining with female voices and percussions, and then culminating in a harmonica solo – a true emblem of country strong soul. It intensifies throughout, formulating an uplifting auditory tale whilst retaining the reflective quality of the initial guitar playing.

In spite of the homage to country homage identified in the opener, the sequence diverts from classic country music, and in doing so, evades the danger of becoming stereotypical of the genre. Most notably, the artist’s acapella vocals in “Son of a Highway Daughter” are layered and electronically enhanced with a vocoder (an instrument that produces sounds by analysing speech input), to push the boundaries of the genre by diversifying the range of its most utilised tool – the human voice. Such experimentation promises exciting things for the musical landscape of a musical style that many believe to be waning in popularity. Kelly himself explains his use of the vocal effect as an attempt to recreate the feeling of ethereality that the sunset induces in all of its listeners.

Dying Star is simultaneously catchy and meaningful, enjoyable and moving, chart-worthy and musically notable – there’s something for every listener to enjoy. As only Kelly’s first full-length releases, the album suggests we have a lot to look forward to.

Bethan Ryder

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