Put out only seven years after its initial release, this reissue does little to expand its original incarnation.
“This isn’t quite folk, although the sound evokes early Dylan; and it ain’t even poetry, although there’s a suggestion of Cohen. The record is the sound of a man wrestling with his burdens in a creative fashion, with the help of an acoustic guitar and the backing of some friends on other ordinary instruments played with a strong passion.”
Look all the way back to 2010 and you’ll find PopMatters’s initial review of Nathaniel Rateliff’s debut solo album, In Memory of Loss. It was written by Steve Horowitz and it received a 7-out-of-10 rating. The record, released on iconic folk label Rounder, came and went without too much fanfare, despite it receiving praise from the New York Times and Billboard. In a lot of ways, you could be forgiven if it managed to slip by you.
But then Stax Records unleashed Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats in 2015, and a fed-up chorus laced with the words “Son of a Bitch” became a rallying cry for music festival lovers everywhere, and the soft-spoken Glen Hansard-ish folkie with a beard suddenly morphed into the hip Southern Soul troubadour… with a slightly more kept beard. It’s amazing what a little angst, some grit and a handful of years toiling away in the national folk scene can do for an artist’s career.
Yet here we are, in 2017, and Concord Records has thought it best to revisit the 2010 debut of Rateliff, the solo artist (as opposed to Rateliff, the band leader). Practically coming packaged with lights that blink, “Money Grab” on the front of it, In Memory of Loss is a snapshot of a guy who became celebrated for not doing the very thing this snapshot portrays. It’s not that what he was doing before finding the Night Sweats wasn’t appealing; it’s just that what he’s done with the Night Sweats since then is far more interesting than what he was doing back when he was sleeping well.
Or, in other words, if you loved the foot-stomping Memphis soul of “I Need Never Get Old”, this 17-track reissue probably isn’t for you.
That said, there are some memorable moments here, no matter which version of the man you prefer. “Brakeman” is admirably introspective -- a trait that’s unapologetic in its presence throughout each of these songs -- and even a little haunting, the way Rateliff inflects his voice. Plus, as the mild drums hold down a backbeat and a colorful piano waltzes the proceedings along, Rateliff manages some killer vocal harmonies, a la Crosby, Stills and Nash. They’re just as powerful as the quiet subtle moments, of which there are many.
One of those is opener, “Once in a Great While”. Feeling like it should have been on the Once soundtrack (no pun intended), it’s buoyed by gorgeous female backing vocals that sound like a newly fluffed pillow inviting a tired head. Intriguingly, there’s a tiny touch of jazz that floats in and out of the production as well, announcing a layer for the singer that would otherwise go ignored. It’s understated bliss, a delicacy for which Rateliff searches often and achieves the most here.
But it’s a thin line to walk, the one that separates sensitivity and monotony, and too often In Memory of Loss meanders into the latter. “Oil & Lavender” leans toward the mediterranean in the same way Leonard Cohen would with its sparse acoustic guitar picking but it can’t be saved despite its repetition and its ability to taste smoke. And “When You’re Here” feels incomplete while suffering from an identity crises -- does it want to be an uptempo, sparsely constructed shot of vulnerability or does it want to be taken as a slow dance, fading in and out of consciousness?
Suffering from the same detriment is one of the two tracks added for this re-issue, “Pounds and Pounds”. While spending the majority of its existence building, it tries hard to feel more epic than this type of music ever has any right to feel. Going up and down in volume doesn’t always translate into versatility, though it feels here as though that was the hope. There aren’t enough vocal layers in the world to save it from disappointing. “You Make All the Noise”, the lone other add-on, is better with its lo-fi soft-rock approach, but it doesn’t contribute enough to the original set to warrant an entire re-release.
Which, of course, is the question at the center of In Memory of Loss: why, in good faith, give it the reissue treatment? And perhaps more importantly, why do it only seven years removed from the original pressing? Even the kindest of cynics can’t deny that a new-found, widespread, mainstream interest in Nathaniel Rateliff’s career plays a factor in it, but at some point, you have to let the artist’s profile breathe. With this, it’s hard to argue that the singer’s momentum feels just a bit muzzled.
Horowitz was right when he noted how these songs were performed with strong passion. But even he couldn’t have known that for Rateliff to eventually find his trademark fire, the first thing he needed to do was break away from an album like this. And for that, In Memory of Loss need not be re-explored.