On his debut album, 2018’s sublime Dying Star, Ruston Kelly grappled with addiction and found his way to sobriety. It was a raw, revealing, heart-wrenching record, wrought with struggle and pain and rendered incredibly moving by what looked, at the time, like a hard-won happy ending. Kelly wrote the album after getting sober, falling in love, and getting married, to country star Kacey Musgraves. “I’m a dying star, front seat of your car/Where you brave the cold and come find me falling apart/Brought me out of the dark/I went way too far this time.” So Kelly sang on Dying Star’s eponymous song and penultimate track. In the album’s liner notes, he explained the lyrics and the idea of the song, which were inspired directly by the support Musgraves lent to him when he needed a little help pulling himself out of the darkness:
Stars are born and will die to be born as new stars again. A supernova brings life anew to the universe. A galactic baptism of sorts.
This song is an ode to the love between Kacey and I. There were many nights during the making of this record where I broke down in her car from the weight of who I had been. And how deep below I felt under it. And she every time, with patience and that special redemptive power only great women possess, reminded me I’m not that man anymore. No matter who or where you are, you have your thorn. It is my belief that’s why we are alive on this earth. To see the glow in the cracks. Light in the tunnel. Suffering is a prerequisite to joy in my opinion. But it’s also the human element that connects us all.
On Shape & Destroy, Kelly’s follow-up to Dying Star, it’s impossible not to think about the last album’s title track, or about Musgraves, or about how integral Kelly always said their relationship was to his getting clean and building a new, happier life. It’s impossible not to think about those things because Kelly and Musgraves separated earlier this summer and filed for divorce, saying their marriage “simply didn’t work.” That news came after Shape & Destroy was already finished—and actually after I had already heard it—but it absolutely colors how the album will be heard and received as most people listen to it for the first time. It is not an album about divorce—at least not obviously—but there are songs that sound a lot sadder filtered through the prism of a breakup. The gorgeous “Closest Thing” is one example, a two-plus-minute acoustic ballad that comes in the record’s final act. “Like a bird, or a plane, or Superman himself/You’re the closest thing to flying that I have ever felt,” Kelly sings softly, a bittersweet sadness in his voice. But it’s “Alive” that feels most wrenching in the context of the Kelly-Musgraves relationship, thanks to the last verse where Kelly evokes a peaceful evening of domestic bliss at home with his wife: “Front porch in the silence, not a sound on the street/And on the horizon, the sun is setting pink/You’re cooking something in the house, singing John Prine/What a beautiful thing to be alive.”
For most of its runtime, though, Shape & Destroy is more about Kelly himself and about his own internal journey. That was true of Dying Star too, but it takes a different shape (pun not intended) here. Dying Star was an album about fighting like hell to beat addiction and get sober. It was about the worst nights of Kelly’s life—nights spent puking outside of bars, or blacking out, or almost dying. It was a remarkable piece of work because it dared to be completely honest about something that was ugly and delicate and full of regret. But Shape & Destroy is somehow maybe an even more honest record because it acknowledges that addiction doesn’t end with one decisive victory. It’s not something where you fade to black at the end of the movie and can just put up the card that says “and everyone lived happily ever after.” Instead, it’s a daily struggle, filled with little battles that sometimes creep up and test your mettle when your guard is down and your reasons for not breaking your pact with yourself and with the people you love don’t seem as ironclad as they did a few days ago.
Repeatedly on this record, Kelly faces down moments of choice where he could opt to stay the course or surrender to a craving and an impulse that he admits is always there. There’s a push and pull throughout the album, between songs that radiate confidence and resolve and songs that permeate exhaustion and resignation. Between songs where he’s ready to do the work and build upon his sobriety and songs where he sounds inclined to send a wrecking ball through it all. Between shaping something and destroying it. “At least I’m not the thing I was before/At least I’m giving all I am and more,” he sings on “Changes,” a song that draws assurance and joy from the work a self-improvement. But a track later, on the aching “Mid-Morning Lament,” he finds himself facing a moment of weakness at the breakfast counter: “I want to spike my coffee, but I know where that leads/And it ain’t the safest feeling when the angel on your shoulder falls asleep.” Similarly, “Brave” is a gentle pep talk (“And I didn’t give up to the darkness, I fought with all my might/And I never took for granted all the love in my life/That’s how I, hope I’m remembered when I die”) while “Clean” admits to the day-to-day struggle of it all (Once I got out of the woods I thought I never would look back/And I hate that it still lingers/And I hate that it’s this hard/Longing for the very things that scare you in the dark”). And where “Pressure” finds Kelly just a stone’s throw from giving up (“I hate to be dramatic, but I think/These days, I might crack”), “Under the Sun” is “about not going back down the mountain once you near the top” (“I know you believe you won’t figure this out/But I’m here to say, ’What if you could?’”).
These songs and the way they pair together, into these little suites of doubt and commitment, build Shape & Destroy into a beautifully poignant album about the fragility of the human condition and the strength it takes to overcome an immense challenge. After Dying Star, I remember some fellow Ruston fans wondering what kind of music the man might make now that he was clean, married, and happy. The question was justifiable, if only because so much of Kelly’s music up to that point had been heartbreaking. But it also spoke to how we often think about recovery and sobriety in this country. From Robert Downey Jr. to Jason Isbell, we take heart from the success stories and assume their redemption arcs are set in stone. Shape & Destroy is, I think, an incredibly important album for how it dismantles this overly simplified narrative and shines a light on the aftermath of recovery, and on what it takes every day to make sobriety stick. It’s an unsparing and unflinching account of that test, and of the little heartbreaks that dot the road. But it’s also, ultimately, an incredibly inspiring record about resilience and hope. As Kelly sings on this album’s very last song: “Through the doubt and pain and howling rain/I pray I’ll always have the strength to say hallelujah anyway.”