Plumbing depths deeper and darker on his sophomore effort, Buffalo Nichols explores the blues with cadences that are as dicey in their experiments as they are rooted in tradition. Building on his 2021 self-titled debut, Nichols looks to be a 21st century Delta king, cut from the tattered soul-cloth of Robert Johnson. It’s a tall order, but he fills it admirably and with an impressive amount of style.
Not the about-face style that is often the schematic preserve of sophomore albums, instead, the Houston native works to expand on the textures he created on his first effort. His self-titled debut toyed with lines cleaner and efficient, precipitating blue-sky atmospheres that tendered a kinder, more insouciant voice. Buffalo Nichols’ latest, The Fatalist, favors a backporch-styled plucking that upturns the dark soul as if it were the pitch-black of chernozem. This newest batch, eight songs in all, finds him in weary form, his now choked and haunted croon skimming each number like a restless, vengeful ghost.
“Cold Black Stare”, the album’s opening number, is gothic prairie-folk, a rickety, threadbare tune that sways forebodingly with the barest slips of percussion to hold it together. The storytelling facilities of Buffalo Nichols’ songwriting trade on his forebearers who had a generation believing once that the devil took up residence at deserted crossroads. “The man in the shadows with the cold, black stare / He’s taking all the warmth and leaving nothing for you,” Nichols sings gravely.
Such soured sentiments find their way into songs like “The Long Journey Home” and “The Fatalist Blues”, numbers further darkened by their gothic shadings. On the former, a banjo draws circles around a troubled narrative of struggle and strife that bruises sweetly against the slicing fiddles and Buffalo Nichols’ barely-there voice. The latter makes a wondrous fashion of steel-string guitars and booming dub loops; a synthesis conventional as any, but rendered unholy and bewitching under Nichols’ influence.
The Fatalist is also marked by a curious use of synthesizers, a typically anomalous element in blues music, but sewn into the fabric here with a passion that is unequivocally traditionalist. The use of electronics does not feel disingenuous here, but rather like homespun creations that engage naturally with their acoustic counterparts. On “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond” and “The Long Journey Home”, 808s provide quickstepped rhythms to bring heft and motion to these phantom chorales.
The atmospheres of these songs, the winds and water of a minacious, brewing storm, are proud and dark, purged from a heart spent from the pressures of hard-living. Precipitated by the pen and hand that occasioned these works, they cloud chord and vocal; an enveloping gloom that quavers elegantly against the naked strains of guitar and voice. Nothing on the album deigns to land a Top 40 playlist, and yet there is a seductive traction in the way Buffalo Nichols gathers his elements. Beneath the muted embroidery of his chosen instruments, there is a musical dynamism that flows agreeably with unfussy movement.
Altogether, The Fatalist is a work of tuned minimalism that feels at once heavy and spectral; an album that sinks hook and charm deeper and deeper into the chernozem with each play.
Musically, how has your work as an artist has grown since your debut?
I have a stronger sense of my identity now. During the first album I was more willing to play different characters and compromise to be more marketable. My playing, singing, and writing have all changed somewhat, but the main difference is my desire to be myself above all else.
The Fatalist explores some elements outside of the blues, namely some electronic influences and samples, which you use as rhythm tracks on songs like “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond” and “The Long Journey Home”. I was struck by the very purist elements of the blues and then the drum loops.
I’ve made electronic music almost as long as I’ve been playing guitar, so it’s very natural to combine these two elements. I never felt satisfied with the idea that the blues should cater to purists. I’ve dedicated a lot of my live set to using electronic elements and I’m slowly working it into my recordings. It’s important as a matter of self-expression, but it’s also important for the genre to continue to grow.
Your profile has been raised considerably since your debut. You’d been playing for years, and in the last couple of years your name has been getting more notice within the blues genre, in particular. What are your experiences like, now that your work is becoming known in wider circles?
That is difficult to answer because I make a conscious effort to ignore things like that. I try to focus on the work that I’m doing. I have noticed more people being interested which is great, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my profile or notoriety.
Lyrically, The Fatalist features a darker humor and a stronger spiritual atmosphere than your debut. What themes were you exploring on this album?
When I write songs, I tend to lean toward darker topics. It’s just in my nature. It’s also in my nature to have a sense of humor. I came up with the title and title-track towards the end of the album process, when I realized that a lot of the songs were addressing the issue of fate and trying to steer your life in a certain way. I was also trying to figure out how to get my life to go the way that I wanted. I kept coming up against different forms of capitalism and power structures that can make you feel helpless, and when you feel helpless, sometimes the only way to cope is to accept it as fate.
Many blues musicians, Robert Cray for one, have crossed the thresholds of their chosen genre for a crossover potential with pop music. Your style of blues is of the finger-picking variety, which favors a more traditional way of playing. Do you see yourself looking to make stronger bids in a pop market sometime in the future?
I have no interest in reaching the pop market. As far as crossing over, my main objective is to shed the reputation I have as a traditional artist or a fingerpicking blues musician. Which is why I made a point to include flat picking, banjo playing, drum machines and other elements like that. I still want to continue to play this traditional style of music, but it bothers me when people limit me or describe me as just that when I have much broader interests and abilities.