Before setting to work on his third album, Ruston Kelly moved out of his Nashville home and into an old Victorian bungalow in the small Tennessee town of Portland, then spent months on end in deliberate solitude. As he busied himself with remodeling his house and tearing through a stack of John Steinbeck novels, the South Carolina-born singer/songwriter began processing a number of life-altering changes he’d endured over the past year, including a very public divorce as well as major upheaval in his immediate family. “I felt a real need to understand myself a little better, and to rediscover the true foundation of who I am,” says Kelly, who candidly detailed his struggle with drug addiction on his 2018 full-length debut, Dying Star. Pushing forward with the intensely self-aware truth-telling he’s always brought to his music, Kelly soon immersed himself in the making of The Weakness: a blisteringly honest but profoundly hopeful album that ultimately reveals our vast potential to create strength and beauty from the most painful of experiences.
“With every record I make, I learn so much about myself and who I am as a human and what type of man I want to be,” says Kelly. “In a way it’s a form of self-help, or like I’m building a fort against a lesser version of myself. Then the goal from there is to just keep on growing.”
The follow-up to Shape & Destroy—a 2020 release that earned acclaim from outlets like NPR, who also hailed Dying Star as “a brutal thing of beauty”—The Weakness finds Kelly straying from the more self-contained approach of his previous output and working with producer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Nate Mercereau (Sharon Van Etten, Leon Bridges, Maggie Rogers). “The way I’d always worked in the past is that the song comes first, and the production helps to lift its meaning and intent,” Kelly explains. “But this time there was a much greater focus on creating a sonic atmosphere that speaks just as loudly and feels just as emotional as the lyrics and voice.” Recorded at Mercereau’s Studio Tujunga in Los Angeles, The Weakness came to life in a series of close-knit sessions with Kelly mainly handling acoustic and electric guitar and Mercereau playing over a dozen instruments (including Mellotron, flute, French horn, autoharp, fretless bass, violin, harmonium, mandolin, and more). “I knew from the beginning that I wanted a large sound for this record—I remember telling Nate at one point that I wanted it to sound like a storm brewing in a big empty field,” says Kelly, who names Daniel Lanois’s work with Bob Dylan as a touchstone for The Weakness. A bold departure from the elegant simplicity of his first two albums, the result is a kaleidoscopic sonic backdrop beautifully suited to The Weakness’ immense scope of feeling.
Opening The Weakness on a potent burst of energy, the album’s title track emerged from a moment of cathartic self-reflection typical of Kelly’s writing process. “I started working on that song and the refrain just kept coming to me: ‘We don’t give in to the weakness,’” he recalls. “The overall narrative of the record is that there’s a variety of weaknesses that I need to deal with, and a variety of strengths that I need to bolster. I truly do believe that acknowledging your weaknesses and digging deeper to understand yourself goes hand-in-hand with becoming a greater human being.” Driven by Kelly’s raw yet graceful vocal work, “The Weakness” unfolds with a gloriously brooding intensity that perfectly echoes its spirit of gritty perseverance. “I’ve always wanted to do a big rock song that feels like it would completely destroy an arena, and I’m really proud that we were able to assimilate that into all the different sounds we were exploring on this record,” Kelly notes.
The first track that Kelly completed for The Weakness, “Mending Song” helped to spark the free-flowing creativity that ultimately fueled all his songwriting for the album. Although he penned most of the LP at home in Portland, “Mending Song” took shape during a solo trip to Joshua Tree. “I rented this little cabin out on 22 acres, just me and the coyotes, and ended up checking out a shop nearby and buying a baritone ukulele,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is so stupid—I’m trying to be that guy, going out to some cabin and writing my opus. Why don’t I just have some fun?’” Once he’d loosened up, Kelly came up with a jangly ukulele riff and opening lyric that soon gave way to the autobiographical storytelling of “Mending Song” (from the first verse: “Something grew up twisted in me/Ripping all the seams/But I was mended by the love of my momma/To fight the devils down in me”). Threaded with sweetly ethereal tones sculpted through Mercereau’s use of guitar-based synth, “Mending Song” was built from a voice-note demo recorded in Kelly’s L.A. hotel room, amplifying its unfettered emotion to sublime effect. “You can hear the dryer running in the background, but there’s something really special about the feel of that recording,” says Kelly.
Another breakthrough for Kelly, “Let Only Love Remain” marks the first song written about the dissolution of his marriage. “For me the pain of divorce was similar to quitting drugs but somehow way more intense,” he says. “Even though drug use is tragic and takes many lives and dulls many spirits, I somehow always had the hope that I would heal from that. But with this experience, there was no rhyme or reason—I couldn’t make sense of it, and for a long time I felt physically incapable of writing about it.” A quietly luminous track laced with heavenly French horn, “Let Only Love Remain” arrives as a heavy-hearted meditation on love’s immutability (“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”). “In the end my divorce taught me more than it wounded me,” says Kelly. “I didn’t want to make a divorce record, but it was important to me to say what I needed to say while also making sure to protect her heart.”
In its endless excavation of his troubles and demons, The Weakness also offers up songs like “Breakdown,” an incandescent piece of alt-pop graced with crystalline beats and Kelly’s achingly delicate vocal work. “I wrote that at a time when there was a lot going on with my family and I was trying to be there for them, but I felt stretched so thin,” he says. “The song came from me admitting I’m not superhuman, and somehow just saying that out loud made me feel more capable of handling the pressure.” On “St. Jupiter,” with its shimmering textures and swooning slide guitar, Kelly brings a bit of poetry to his expression of longing and regret. “In the second verse there’s a reference to a day when we were at the garden shop and it was so hot and I was just over it, and there was an argument,” he says. “That part in the song is about looking back and recognizing, ‘Maybe I should’ve just shut my mouth and let you buy those pots you wanted.’” And on the wildly anthemic “Michael Keaton,” Kelly spins another real-life incident into the album’s most fantastically offbeat moment (from the chorus: “It’s 3:35 in the morning/And I thought CBD would not get me high/But here I am thinking/What if Michael Keaton killed himself in Multiplicity?/Would that be genocide?”). “That really did happen, but the song’s mostly about experimenting with what it means to be me,” says Kelly. “At the time I was trying to date again and eventually realized that I needed to step back from that, and just let myself live in that space of thinking weird stony thoughts at 3 a.m.”
By the time The Weakness closes out with the hymnlike resolution of “Cold Black Mile,” Kelly has made his way to a radiant sense of conviction and courage (“And I might die a 1000 times/But I know I can survive/I’ll just keep on pushing down/The cold black mile”). A voracious reader, he points to a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King in contemplating the album’s underlying message: “His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.” “To me that sums up everything about this record: the idea that you can either fall under the pain or you can stand on top of it, and then end up becoming a stronger person,” Kelly says. “I hope this music helps people to become the hero of their own lives by understanding their own weaknesses a little better,” he adds. “And I hope it helps them to see that tragedy, however it manifests for you, doesn’t ever have to be the period at the end of the sentence.”