A bright Gerber daisy on his jacket is not enough to distract you from the intensity of Beaver Nelson’s piercing stare. Yet the photograph of Nelson on the cover of Undisturbedshows someone beckoning you to come inside, albeit someone with a look so beleaguered that you feel a little nervous about the prospect. Inside all is not glum, evidenced by the tempered optimism of “Better Now” and a ballad written for his young son called “The Beauty In Store”.
The Austin-based singer-songwriter will toss off a line like “it’s blue in the malt shop” as if he still wishes to portray himself as a bit of an innocent in a complex world. Maybe he is, who knows, but he also comes across as a man going through a period of self-examination and not necessarily overjoyed with what he finds.
He seeks youthful escape in “Eleven Again”, an oddly rousing ode to the joys of childhood innocence. He reels over the effects of “Experiments in Love” which have left him alone and empty. He has composed one hell of a song about the human condition, “I Wanted Too Much”, where speaking of a lover presumably from his past, he intones: “A turn to be treated tender / By the harshest answer yet / Always left me wondering / If the whip would ever quit”. Yet Nelson is not a beat dog, just opening up to confess human frailty, and it’s such an unnerving truth that the only way for the song to come to a close is an abrupt fade.
The band is impressive, surprisingly low-key for such a distinguished ensemble, and its understated playing is perfect for a singer with something to say. Guitarist Scrappy Jud Newcomb (who produced Nelson’s third full-length release) and bassist Michael Cornbread Traylor, two of Austin’s finest musicians, compliment Nelson’s sentiments with even handed playing. A guest turn by former Small Faces member Ian MacLagan, who plays Wurlitzer on two cuts, is wonderful, but is not overshadowed by pianist/organist David Boyle, who like Newcomb played on last year’s “Little Brother”. Drummer Stephen Belans is augmented with percussion by the late Mambo John Treanor, an Austin legend who was known for being able to play any genre of music as well as create furry hats out of Texas road kill.
Nelson must have felt the need to call his new album Undisturbed so fans wouldn’t worry. After all, he has crafted songs that ask a lot of probing questions. Some of the song titles themselves reflect this mentality: “Did You Know?”, “Where Are You?”, and “What Is That to Me?” that are, in fact, some of the most powerful statements on an album of philosophical musing. “What Is That to Me?” in particular, explores the paradox of knowing and yet not knowing in one short shiny burst, with Newcomb’s electric guitar gently coaxing the full band to come forth as if playing a rock ‘n’ roll symphony.
This has got to be one of the most existential albums of the year, not surprising from a songwriter like Nelson who appears equally influenced by the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Jean-Paul Sartre. For those who take the time to listen, Nelson is lucid all right, just occasionally overwhelmed with the ever-changing nature of relationships in an ever-changing world.