Review Summary: Brighter days still to come.
Ruston Kelly has been through hell. It may not be obvious amid Shape & Destroy
’s weightless atmosphere and sun stained acoustic chords, but that’s because his latest album is more about where he is
than where he’s been. Right now, he’s recovering from years of cocaine and amphetamine abuse, including an overdose that nearly ended his life. He’s trying to heal from a painful (although amicable) split with his former wife, Kacey Musgraves, with whom he has shared music and parts of his soul. Sober and single, Ruston has been presented with a fresh canvas upon which to paint a new life. Shape & Destroy
sees Kelly splashing it with the brightest of colors and most hopeful of hues.
Such optimism is evident from the opening strums. ‘In the Blue’ soars above wispy clouds as Kelly triumphantly sings “I was born to the freest wind.” It’s a “through agony, hope is born” sort of moment – he even leans extra hard into the verse “In the blood of an unholy thing / I'm still gonna sing with the angels” – in direct defiance of his checkered past. On ‘Radio Cloud’ he half-jokingly likens himself to Moses, as he’s completed an exodus of his own (from drugs and from a failing marriage, into this fresh uncertainty). Musical transcendence is a rare thing, but you can literally feel
the weights being lifted on this album. It’s all so lush, airy, and pristine; a soundtrack for second chances.
Even when the clouds are tinted with shades of gray – for example, the struggle to spike or not spike his coffee on ‘Mid Morning Lament’, or the unintentionally heartbreaking references to Musgraves cooking and singing John Prine in their kitchen while they were still married – Ruston keeps his visions fixed on the promise held by tomorrow. That sounds cliché, but it’s not something taken for granted by someone who’s recently seen his life flash before his eyes. Kelly allows himself to be human here – to have
these flawed moments where he relapses or recalls a painful memory from his marriage – and it’s okay, because transparency is crucial to recovery. It’s just as much about knowing your weaknesses as it is about celebrating your strengths.
The beauty of Shape & Destroy
lies in Kelly’s will to change. It’s not reluctantly embraced, but pursued like a grand mystery of the universe. On the uplifting and chime-laden ‘Jubilee’, he compares himself to a flower growing towards the sun, gazing skyward for a remedy to cure his thirst. The final verse is perhaps the most illuminating, as he sings “I've looked under the stone, looked in my neighbor's home/ Walked through the hills alone, trying to find it / Maybe it's drawing near, maybe it's always been here / It's just so invisibly clear, you gotta wanna see it.” It feels like a revelation occurring in real time: the answers and cures will not simply rain down from the sky. It’s an elusive thing to find oneself, and the definition is always changing. You just have to be willing to look inward and reflect honestly on a constant basis.
Life is a constant cycle of building our lives into what we think
we need, and then tearing down those structures to make room for new, and hopefully healthier, realities. It’s shape, destroy, and repeat – the album’s titular adage. Kelly is aware of this, and that’s why Shape & Destroy
opts to celebrate a clean slate rather than dwell on the demons of the past, even going so far as to write, “When I go, if I see my soul sink below and down into the flames…Hallelujah anyway.” Kelly can’t help but exude the unbridled joy of a man who has already been through hell, and has been given another opportunity to live. On the penultimate ‘Under the Sun’ – one of the album’s defining moments of grit and passion – Kelly sings of letting go of the past and dreaming about the future: “If it hurts either way, what's the point in dragging it out? / Brighter days still will come.” That’s the magic of this cruel and endless cycle of pain that we’re all trapped in. Even within the depths of our own personal hells, nobody can take away our spirit, our hope…our fervent desire to climb out of the dark and into the light. One of Ruston’s parting verses from Shape & Destroy
goes like this: “I know you believe you won't figure this out…But I'm here to say, ’What if you could?’" From anyone, these words may not mean much. Coming from Kelly, though – after all of his tribulations – it means the world.