Review Summary: There's no storm that doesn't pass
During a 2015 interview in the weeks leading up to Carrie & Lowell
’s release, Sufjan Stevens described his mother in a way that I haven’t forgotten: “She was an alcoholic. She did drugs, had substance abuse problems. She really suffered, for whatever reason. But when we were with her and when she was most stable, she was really loving and caring, and very creative and funny.” This passage has always reminded me that, while we all deal with varying levels of turmoil and stress, some people seem predestined to undergo truly tragic
circumstances, for whatever reason
. Call it fate, call it God, call it bad luck: whatever it
is, it seems to latch onto certain souls – often the most beautiful ones – and not let go. Lately I’ve been drawing an invisible line between Carrie Stevens and Ruston Kelly in my mind. I’m not exactly sure how the idea even materialized in the first place; perhaps it’s just because “Mending Song” sounds like a gorgeous country adaptation of Carrie & Lowell
’s pastoral essence, but the idea of Kelly as a man who’s been stuck in this cyclical pattern of suffering makes at least some sense. He spent many years addicted to cocaine and amphetamines, leading to a nearly fatal overdose. 2020’s Shape & Destroy
chronicled his recovery, including breathtaking assessments of life after having made it to the other side: 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.
Just as Kelly seemed to be rounding a corner, he went through a gut-wrenching, tabloid-consuming divorce with country superstar Kacey Musgraves – and that’s where we find ourselves on The Weakness
. It’s an album that’s more heartbroken and grounded than the ethereal, optimistic Shape & Destroy
, and yet – in a revealing testament to Kelly’s personal growth – this piece still manages to create its own silver linings. Kelly may be subject to an endless stream of trials, but he refuses to become a victim of circumstance: we don’t give in to the weakness.
If Shape & Destroy
was a coping mechanism for his recovery from substance abuse, then The Weakness
is a post-divorce cathartic vessel, where the common denominator is Kelly’s ability continually rise from the ashes.
My marriage ended and I moved up north to mend
I tried to fight it like a needle in my skin
The hole inside me kept on growin', everything went black
Was then I heard the words of my father
“Have faith, there's no storm that doesn't pass”
Ruston Kelly’s third full-length LP is brimming with hopeful ruminations, from the above passage to extending well-wishes directly to Musgraves on the hauntingly lo-fi “Mending Song”: I will forgive what was done out of despair / I wish you only happiness and healin' / And I hope that you're findin' it out there.
Those who’ve heard Kacey’s 2021 LP Star-Crossed
will recall that the record was able to revisit the marriage without assigning blame for the fallout, and the same courtesy is extended here. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t any regret or deeply rooted pain, however. Atop the spry acoustic strums of “St. Jupiter”, Kelly remembers the kind of mundane argument that anyone in a long-term relationship could relate to: The flowers from St. Jupiter look better in these pots / I remember when we bought 'em I complained 'cause it was hot / If I could travel back in time I'd just shut my mouth and let you shop.
He follows that up with there ain't a day that I don't miss her, that's just how it is around here
. Much of The Weakness
feels rooted in these sort of plaintive laments, where Ruston reflects not only on what led to him and Kacey gradually drifting apart, but also where he sees himself headed. “Holy Shit” looks in the rear view mirror – from his drug issues to his divorce – and molds it into an effortlessly catchy moment of self-affirmation: Oh my God I just want to give up but I remember how long I’ve been fighting / Like holy shit, I must be built for this
. The lyrics undoubtedly read a little awkward and will initially seem like a clear step down from Shape & Destroy
’s life-changing perspective (and perhaps they are), but the more times you spin The Weakness
to get a feel for its whimsical and down-to-earth approach, the better these passages will end up sounding in context. One such example is “Michael Keaton”, which I strongly disliked during my first couple of spins, where Kelly sings It’s 3:35 in the morning and I thought CBD would not get me high / Here I am thinking ‘what if Michael Keaton killed himself in Multiplicity / Would that be genocide?’
It’s jarringly self-indulgent compared to the poetic inclinations that swept up Shape & Destroy
into the clouds, but there’s something about Kelly taking time to himself – sitting in his living room post-breakup and accidentally getting stoned – that winds up endearing, especially when paired with Ruston’s admission to himself: If I have to listen to you talk about her one more time, I swear to God I’ll set this house on fire
. There’s an appropriate presence of “ah, fuck it”-isms in the aftermath of such a highly publicized divorce, and while these lyrics won’t work for everyone, they’re an accurate distillation of Kelly’s mindset at the present time.
is at its best when Kelly ditches the lighthearted and goes for the emotional jugular, however. There’s perhaps no better example than the jaw-dropping “Better Now”, where Ruston’s voice showcases its breathtaking range alongside what is hands-down the album’s most gorgeous melody, all spurred on by an uplifting refrain of I think I’m better now
. It combines all of Ruston’s most aesthetically pleasing musical traits and infuses them with additional atmospheric components – the sound of rain and rushing water, distant songbirds – all as part of a metaphorical cleansing. “Let Only Love Remain” stands alongside “Better Now” as another quietly luminous moment, where Ruston’s words roll over his patiently strummed guitar like waves cresting over rocks on a desolate shoreline: And we can take all the days / Filled with pain that we wasted / And roll ‘em into one / But it still wouldn’t measure / Up to what’s forever / A love that cannot be undone
. Even the lead single and title track hits differently in context, with lines like “I woke up dreaming of her face again / I hate the way I miss her torment / I've come this far and now I can't forget” measuring up to this notion of boundless adoration, while the at-first jarring chorus of “fuck that guy he’s just a piece of shit” reveals itself to be a double-edged sword – is he singing about Musgraves’ next love interest, or is he singing of what he’s afraid he might be reduced to in future conversations, when he was once Kacey’s entire world? The song slowly builds and winds up to that moment of cathartic release – a rock crescendo that feels like it would absolutely decimate stadiums in a live setting. Despite the fascinating sonic and lyrical pivots throughout The Weakness
, it’s still these kinds of moments that define Ruston Kelly’s artistry: deep pain exorcised through thoughtfully conveyed lyrics and demonstrative, heartening instrumental performance.
While Ruston’s third full-length definitely continues his penchant for crafting stirring emo-country, there are some decisions that prevent it from ascending to its full potential. Occasional clumsy lyrics notwithstanding, the tracklist does The Weakness
no favors by stacking some of its most underwhelming moments at the record’s forefront. On the heels of the emotive title track, “Hellfire” ends up being a missed opportunity because it spends the majority of its runtime building towards an epic guitar solo or otherwise climatic moment that never arrives. “St. Jupiter” doesn’t possess the emotional foundation only three tracks in to support clunky and nondescript verses such as it’s been a long fucking summer, it’s been a long year
, while “Michael Keaton” follows suit with the aforementioned lyrics about getting stoned on CBD. The album swiftly takes off with some of Kelly’s best material from “The Mending Song” forward, but the initial onslaught of disappointing follow-through and jarring lyrical passages make for a curious first impression at best.
Despite some small missteps, The Weakness
is, for all intents and purposes, another very strong entry into Ruston Kelly’s growing canon. It’s emotional, gritty, and hopeful regardless of the circumstances. In many ways, that’s what has come to define Kelly’s music: steadfast optimism and self-empowerment in the face of tragedy. Whether it’s addiction, depression, or a soul-crushing breakup, Kelly always seems to put himself on top of the weight instead of allowing himself to be crushed underneath. He embodies what it means to dictate your outlook on life through perspective; maybe we can’t control everything that happens to us, but we can put ourselves in the driver’s seat of what we can
do: let go of the past when it hurts, celebrate living in the present, start building for tomorrow, and never, ever give in to the weakness.
The road that I took then was full of ditches and mistakes
And deep in the shadow of my failures
I saw some things are worth the pain