Nothing in life offers guarantees that everything will be fine. Nothing assures you that your behavior will win you either comfort or justice. Nothing keeps the water clean and the floods down, and the winds light. Country singer Ruston Kelly senses that. He’s struggled with sobriety, mental health, and relationship pitfalls, but as he releases second album Shape & Destroy, he finds that he has to say, “Hallelujah anyway.” That grace and gratitude fill this new record, not because it’s been easy for Kelly, but because it hasn’t, and each track finds a way through to some reward, whether or not it’s deserved or even obvious.
Kelly closes the album with the short, choral “Hallelujah Anyway”, but the expression’s well earned. Across the rest of the record, he tracks his challenges and successes. The whole process feels like refinement. On the pop “Radio Cloud”, Kelly explains, “The fire takes what ain’t worth a damn now”, recognizing that once the garbage has been stripped away, he can recognize himself, settled down to earth and able to move freely. The freedom comes not just relief, but as life itself. On “Alive”, he sings to and with his wife: “It’s all because of you …. What a beautiful thing to finally be alive.” The blinders have come off, and Kelly embraces everything around him.
Along with co-producer Jarrad K, Kelly gives the album a soft feel. His voice fits in well to the smoothed out Americana, and he does well not to give the record a countrypolitan lushness. With the music sounding just thick enough, it lets him find space for more subtle moments. Single “Brave” finds Kelly isolated but finding inner strength. He acknowledges his failures, his losses, and a touch of lingering fear, but he wants to know that what he does now makes a difference. We can hear him regrouping with his guitar to emerge healthier than he’s been, realistic but encouraged.
Steeled, he moves forward, mostly finding ease in mid-tempo pacing as he tentatively works his way up. On “Rubber”, he considers a drink poured for him, but left “on the edge of a wishing well” and a woman he hopes doesn’t disappear. “Can I bounce back?” he asks. But more than halfway through the album, we know the answer. Even if we know, Kelly wants to make sure we don’t stop answering too soon. Led by piano, “Under the Sun” puts an urgency to the final few steps. “I know you think you’ve let all of them down / I know you believe you won’t figure this out,” Kelly sings, “But I’m here to say, ‘What if you could?'” Kelly knows the importance of going into those difficult places and facing the things you don’t want to face. He sings from a good place and a spot where he can see it doesn’t always work out. Even so, he’ll keep his faith in “brighter days still to come,” and always be prepared to offer a “hallelujah.”