Music

Nathaniel Rateliff Gets Personal on 'And It's Still Alright'

Photo: Rett Rogers / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

The title of Americana artist Nathaniel Rateliff's latest solo LP, And It's Still Alright, suggests that there's joy after pain, but the record's contents also note that the opposite is true.

And It's Still Alright
Nathaniel Rateliff

Stax

14 February 2020

Nathaniel Rateliff has enjoyed success as the leader of the Americana/soul band the Night Sweats. Fans celebrate the act for its high energy live shows. But one can only party so long. Rateliff has taken a break from the band and put out a more sober solo release inspired by the death of his friend and fellow musician Richard Swift, the end of his marriage, and other negative life experiences. Rateliff recorded the material at Swift's studio home in Oregon. The 10-track record's title And It's Still Alright suggests that there's joy after pain, but the record's contents also note that the opposite is true.

Rateliff has mentioned the work of Harry Nilsson as a songwriting inspiration, and this can be heard on the whimsical melodies and wordplay of songs such as "All or Nothing" and the title track. He delivers the lyrics with a childlike naïveté, even elongating vowels the way Nilsson would do in an impish way to suggest something naughty rather than say it straight out. This persona allows Rateliff to take on various roles from song to song. And It's Still Alright isn't a concept album per se. The songs explore various states of mind and observations about the ways of the world from "hey, we all die" to "life goes on". That's a lot of psychic material.

The album has a quiet vibe. James Barone (Beach House) co-produced, engineered and mixed the LP with Rateliff. They employ a vocal choir for heavenly emphasis when appropriate and allow silence to create spaces between what the lyrics say and the instrument's voice. And It's Still Alright is a Rateliff record, and although he is joined by violinist Tom Hagerman, bassist Elijah Thomson, keyboardist Daniel Creamer, steel guitarist Eric Swanson, and guitarist Luke Mossman (and two drummers), the music sounds intimate as if it is just Rateliff speaking one to one with the listeners. The background musicians seem to fade into the background like the window shedding light on a bowl of fruit in a still life. The importance of the glow cannot be overstated.

That is especially true on what would otherwise seem to be the most despairing material such as the tracks "Expecting to Lose" and "You Need Me". The lines are delivered with a lilt that allows Rateliff to throwaway phrases such as "Are you telling me now In the middle of the shit 'fuck you'" with the same nonchalance he gives to the "doo doo doos" on other verses. The playfulness of the music illuminates the nothing matters sentiment expressed. When it's over ("it" being life, love, friendship, existence, etc.), it's over.

So, what's the hurry to get to the end? The album's last song—and it's longest one—the six-minute plus "Rush On" plods on at a slow pace. Rateliff' sings in a big voice that strains and aches with funereal emotion for the first four minutes until the song turns into an instrumental declaration of grief. The last two minutes of the track and hence the record express anguish and misery. There is something brutally honest about finishing the LP this way. The outside world may go on even as our personal one disappears. The best we can do is to declare ourselves and keep on keeping on.

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