By Jonah Covell
Kelly’s talent for juxtaposing the life-or-death tale of his addiction and sobriety with mundane experiences of the everyday has led him to a third excellent album.
1. The Weakness
3. St. Jupiter
4. Let Only Love Remain
5. Michael Keaton
6. Mending Song
9. Holy Shit
10. Better Now
11. Wicked Hands
12. Cold Black Mile
The album art puts the rain in your mind, but the title song does the rest. Over the ring of some sparsely distorted guitar chords, a soaked Ruston Kelly gets stuck in traffic, makes it home and checks in with his partner about dinner and her day. It’s very quotidien until the verse turns to a mantra: “No matter what I hope you don’t forget / We don’t give in to the Weakness.”
Kelly’s talent for juxtaposing the life-or-death tale of his addiction and sobriety with mundane experiences of the everyday has led him to two - and now three - excellent records. Time has elapsed since he was last using, making the continual struggle of sobriety a primarily mental battle. Doubts and fears are overturned or reexamined throughout. An especially potent moment occurs in ‘Hellfire’, where after two albums of material plumbing from his psyche, Kelly admits, “So what, oh well, sometimes I wish I was somebody else.”
While the powerful, sometimes graphic scenes that were portrayed in older songs such as ‘Changes’ or ‘Dying Star’ are further in the past, Kelly has no trouble communicating the stakes of his sobriety as it becomes more of a cerebral process. On late track ‘Holy Shit’, he lays it out as plainly as possible: “Oh my God I just wanna give up / But I remember how long I’ve been fighting / Like holy shit I must be built for this / Cuz I’m either shooting a bullseye / Or trying to miss.”
The Weakness arrives with a new sound for the “dirt emo” originator. Kelly’s chiming alternative tunings and the occasional whine of a pedal steel grace a few songs, but his emo roots have grown to the forefront here, with producer Nate Mercerau adding an eclectic mix of everything from mellotron to strings. Songs like ‘Dive’ and ‘Wicked Hands’ show that Kelly can soar as an alt-superhero, referencing Sufjan Stevens as he successfully marries self-eviscerating narrative with a plaintive but catchy melotron riff, all over pronouncedly un-country drums.
Many of Kelly’s fans are no doubt expecting a high-profile divorce album, but they won't find a standard one here. The end of Kelly’s marriage to Kacey Musgraves is usually addressed obliquely. Kelly is centered on healing, not only from a divorce but major family upheaval and the ever present ghost of his years. ‘Let Only Love Remain’, the song that most directly recounts his separation, contains some of the record’s finest writing, with Kelly alluding to parallel fights for his touring career and for home life with a country superstar.
This is also the funniest Ruston Kelly has ever been. On ‘Michael Keaton’, an accidentally high Ruston’s zooted thoughts take over as he listens to someone vent. The track is perfectly unhinged and happy to be both dramatic and nonsensical. He’s aware of how ridiculous his epic language can sometimes sound, and having fun with it, singing “ I don’t mean to make fun of crying / But I can hear you crying and it’s killing my vibe.”
Fans generally hold their breath when a favorite artist announces they’ve found a new sound, or taken up what Kelly calls “self-help rock.” There’s no reason to do that here. This album is as true to the dirt emo ethos than anything Kelly has put out before. The Weakness ends with him resigned to face the epic, painful and repetitive strains of life as he’s ever been, even if he’s in that fight alone.
Not to spoil it, but he certainly doesn’t give in to The Weakness.
The Weakness is out on Friday 7th April via Rounder Records.