“I’m so glad that chapter of my life is over.”
Ruston Kelly tweeted those words out while introducing “Faceplant,” one of the (many) pre-release songs from his full-length debut album, Dying Star. They could just as easily be applied to the album as a whole, which exorcises a boatload of demons over the course of 14 beautiful, despairing songs. It’s a heavy listen: Kelly doesn’t try to glamorize his portraits of heartbreak, nor is he anything but candid about his personal struggles with addiction. Kelly overdosed in early 2016 and ended up in rehab. Later that year, he released his debut EP, called Halloween. He’s been building buzz ever since, and seems poised to explode with Dying Star. He also fell in love, getting married earlier this year to country music star Kacey Musgraves.
While things might be looking up for Kelly now, though, Dying Star is firmly focused on his life’s previous chapter. In that sense, the album bears a certain resemblance to Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, another record about redemption following years of darkness. “I’m a dying star in your junkyard heart/And I’m some kid puking outside of some bar/Or maybe I’m just crazy,” Kelly sings in “Mercury,” a song about delirious loneliness and the way people cope with it. In most of these songs, Kelly is doing just that: coping. Coping with being alone. Coping with being heartbroken. Coping with regrets about his own mistakes and everything they cost. “I ain’t been doing too well/But I’ve found a few things that help,” he sings in “Blackout.” “I blackout in a bar, I get high in my car/I drive ‘round in circles ‘til I’m seeing stars/I get so fucked up to forget who you are/I dumb down my head so I can’t feel my heart pound/And blackout.”
On first listen, Dying Star feels almost too painful to listen to. You expect the album to climb toward lightness and hope as it spins forward, but it never does. The closest thing to uplift happens on track two, with the surging, highway-ready love song that is “Mockingbird.” The second half of the record, meanwhile, features most of the sharpest gut-punches, stacking heartbreakers like “Mercury,” “Anchors,” “Just for the Record,” “Trying to Let Her,” and “Jericho” one after the other. But Kelly has his reasons for dwelling in the darkness. “A lot of my music is focused on suffering, or trying to understand the human condition through the lens of suffering,” he said in the lead-up to this album. “[That] probably sounds totally depressing, but it’s actually the flipside of that. Sometimes you’ve gotta go into that darkness. You need to get lost and then figure out for yourself how to find your way back. That’s the only way we can find pure joy, and really be thankful for the life we’ve been given.”
There’s often a tendency among onlookers to expect artists’ songs to reflect their current situations. Dwelling on the sadness of the past when you’ve found a happier present seems to some like a betrayal of the life you are living now. To those people, Dying Star might seem almost performative in its heartbreak. Surely Ruston Kelly could have written a “love” album, given the life he has now. Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, which is largely about her relationship with Kelly, is just such an album, and is splendid and uplifting with its songs about falling hard for the right person at the right time. But as Jason Isbell once wrote, “Never get why folks ask, ‘Now that life is good, what will you write about?’ As if there aren’t a thousand things a day that break your heart.” For many, the past is one of those things. Even in the happiest times, memories from darker moments can come to the fore. Reflecting on those memories and trying to address why you aren’t over them yet is not only healthy; it’s important. Your past is part of you, and remembering it, learning from it, and channeling it into something positive often leads to the best art.
That’s certainly the case for Kelly and Dying Star. It’s a record that should offer immense comfort for souls still traveling the same darkened highways that Kelly had to stumble down to reach contentment. For solo nighttime drives or rainy days or moments where your heart doesn’t feel like it can take anymore pain, songs like “Anchors” and “Just for the Record” and “Dying Star” seem destined to act as powerful salves. “Love can be a heat wave/Love can be a cold rain,” Kelly sings on “Jericho,” an achingly gorgeous track he wrote with Natalie Hemby and Joy Williams (The Civil Wars). For the latter side of the coin, when everything seems broken and grey and cold, Dying Star seems like the kind of record that could legitimately save lives. Some albums are things you enjoy in passing but that never seem to leave a deeper mark. Other albums seem like life rafts, things you cling to when you don’t have anything else. Dying Star is the latter, and as an opening salvo from a talented newcomer, it’s a remarkably promising glimpse of things to come. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call it the Heartbreaker of the 2010s.