Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen
Even by the standards of Ruston Kelly’s previous heavy and confessional music, the task before him while creating The Weakness was particularly stark. Between finishing writing his previous album – 2020’s Shape & Destroy – and now, he endured a high-profile breakup with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves and was continuing to deal with the aftermath of drug and alcohol relapse. On The Weakness, the Nashville-based musician confronts the most grueling elements of the human experience and how we find lasting ways to endure them.
Writing the dreaded divorce album is an unenviable task for any artist, especially when one’s ex-wife has already released theirs (Musgraves, released Star-Crossed about their ill-fated union in 2021). But whereas Musgraves audibly struggled to move from the love-struck innocence of Golden Hour towards the bitter reality of Star-Crossed, Kelly had already perfected a sorrowful, alt-country sound that had previously been mastered by depressive cult stars like Jason Molina and Justin Townes Earles.
It comes as something of a surprise then, that Kelly largely abandons his trademark sound on The Weakness – recruiting Nate Mecrereau (Maggie Rogers, Leon Bridges, Sharon Van Etten) as a collaborator and throwing out his trademark steel pedal guitar entirely. As Kelly confronts a life starkly different from what he had envisioned, he takes a sledgehammer to the foundations of his music and rebuilds from the ground up. A prime example of this is “Mending Song” – a delicate, finger-picked acoustic number about how we rebuild after we hit rock bottom. In his case, it’s the “love of [his] mama”, moving up north, having faith in the future, and forgiving himself (“I will forgive what I’ve done out of despair”).
Another acoustic highlight, “St. Jupiter” speaks plainly, relatably, matter-of-factly, and humorously to the collective malaise of the pandemic (“It’s been a long year // I feel fat and old and dumber // And I’m watching time disappear”). The song is scattered with mundane musings and recollections that recall the most evocative songwriting of indie icons Phoebe Bridgers and Courtney Barnett (“The flowers from St. Jupiter // Are growing in the yard // And I made sure that I planted ‘em // At least three feet apart // To discourage all the morning pissers trying to leave their mark”). Amidst his rambling, he finds clarity: “I’ll just keep the fire in me raging // And I’ll be doing alright.”
The process of mending oneself – especially after suffering the stunning lows that have befallen Kelly in recent years – is rarely linear or wholly productive. Fittingly, Kelly occasionally stumbles over himself across The Weakness’ runtime. The oft-minimalist sound of the album often makes Kelly’s usually captivating powerhouse vocals register as over-singing, but on the occasions where he expands his sound, it doesn’t always work either. The peppy “Breakdown” is a head-scratcher that evokes Liz Phair’s mid-2000s pop music and sounds hopelessly out of place in the context of the album.
However, despite bumps along the way, the journey Ruston Kelly takes on The Weakness is a worthwhile and primarily satisfying one, that speaks affectingly to loss, change, and addiction. On the title track, and LP centerpiece, Kelly speaks of why we are drawn to addictive substances (“I just wanna lose control // I wanna feel like I’ve never known”), but in cathartic cries of “We don’t give in to the weakness,” he finds the strength to stay sober in the music itself.