There is a certain joy that comes from listening to a debut album and discovering, track by track, the arrival of a bright new talent. It's not a wet-behind-the-ears singer with a batch of anonymous songs, hoping to get radio airplay. Rather, it's someone with an already-established vision and a clear voice. Ruston Kelly's "Dying Star" may have a few too many cuss words to get the airplay it deserves, but it should be considered as one of the best debuts of the year.
While the use of a steel guitar is one of the few sonic nods to country music, Kelly writes a tune like many of the greats of the Americana world. The wry "Faceplant" (co-written with Brendan Benson and co-producer Jarrad Kritzstein) has the feel of a Bruce Robison song, while "Blackout" (Kritzstein, Kelly and Joy Williams, formerly of The Civil Wars) would be at home on an early Whiskeytown album. All the songs were written or co-written by Kelly, and he penned half of the 14 songs himself with a number of them referencing his drug issues. These solo pieces include some of the strongest ones, including "Paratrooper's Lament" and "Mockingbird."
Kelly accomplishes the neat trick of including contemporary references in his lyrics without making it seem like he's trying too hard. All too often, country singers throw in a reference Coldplay or Mango-ritas (looking at you, Thomas Rhett), and it seems forced, as if "make pop culture references" is part of a songwriting to-do list. Kelly, though, compares a woman to Parker Posey and argues with his friends about Lebron, and it's done in a natural way that adds depth to the song without name-dropping purely for effect. The Posey reference in "Mockingbird" even specifies the specific year and wardrobe; clearly he's thought this metaphor through.
"Son of a Highway Daughter" deals in beautiful, vivid imagery - "I woke up stoned with a bag of bones/still laying in my bed/She was breathing fire/I was a worn out tire/trying to brush the ash outside my head." The closer, "Burst Brightly into the Air," says what it needs to say in a couple of verses and wraps up neatly in in a minute and a half. Kelly's warm, pleasant vocals are a bit reminiscent of Robison or A.A. Bondy and more than do justice to the songs. If there is a quibble to be found, it's that his a capella intro to "Son of a Highway Daughter" is slightly digitized for effect. It's a slight nitpick that does not diminish the beauty of the song.
Fourteen tracks on a debut record may seem excessive in most cases, but Kelly's singing and songwriting skills don't leave a reason to pare it down. Kelly's arrival on the scene comes as one of the more exciting developments of 2018.