Emo without edge, folk without warmth, Americana without texture
Ruston Kelly released Dirt Emo last year, which featured covers of primarily pop-punk and emo bands, including two renditions of Wheatus’s inexplicably persistent “Teenage Dirtbag.” It was far from the song’s first country or folk rendition—Phoebe Bridgers and Mary Lambert beat him to it—yet Kelly’s version and the overall tracklist of Dirt Emo belie how much he is influenced equally by Warped Tour and music that predates rock as a whole. The influence Kelly takes from rock is similar to modern trap, such as Travis Barker of Blink-182 showing up on a XXXTentacion posthumous song or Post Malone performing a tribute concert to Nirvana for charity. Such cross-breeding is welcome and should be encouraged, but both can end up copying all of the angst but replacing the texture with watery, runny nothingness.
There’s no getting around it; Kelly has one of the most polarizing voices in country and Americana, not that dissimilar from Brendon Brown of Wheatus. Even if the music supporting him complemented him more, his chewy mouth breathing is irritating, and the vocal production only exacerbates its shrillness with too much reverb and compression. It sounds like Passenger if his hand was held on a hot stove, yet he doesn’t have enough bass in his voice to work like Brothers Osbourne. Shape & Destroy tries to alleviate these problems with frequent overdubs from Kelly himself or female background vocals on “Clean” and “Alive,” and Kelly throws his all into every song. It’s the sad example of a singer cursed with a difficult vocal tone that no one knows what to pair with.
In comparison to the bleakness of Dying Star, Shape & Destroy is more uplifting with the jaunty strumming of the opener “In the Blue,” the faster-raced rollick playing off the keys of “Changes” and the harmonious ascending notes on the guitar and organ on “Jubilee.” The highlight of the record is “Brave,” a lyrically simple but effective self-esteem anthem performed with the vast, echoing stillness of Jason Isbell’s Southeastern. Kelly would work better without the dreamy atmospherics and vocal post-production and with a rougher guitar tone to match his vocal tone. Outside of a pseudo-trap skitter on “Rubber” that was a grave injustice to the tense strumming and soft vocal overdubs that create a nice cushion for Kelly’s roughness, there’s nothing notable or obviously wrong with the production. The guitars squeak and stack when they need to, the flutters of piano and pedal steel are nice.
However, Dying Star’s more nocturnal vibe worked better for Kelly’s anguish, and while the more positive lyricism fits, the pivot to something akin to dream-country does not flatter his voice or possess enough texture to drive it home. It’s nice that he isn’t recycling what got him so much acclaim in the first place on Shape & Destroy, but the changes result in a record with little impact or much worth remembering.