Nathaniel Rateliff was one of the more surprising success stories of the 2010s, a decade that full of strange ones. A big bearded white guy from Colorado, he broke out singing brawny soul music with his band the Night Sweats. Paying proud homage to Memphis soul, Rateliff’s 2015 hit “S.O.B.,” propelled towards mainstream popularity by a thrilling Jimmy Fallon performance, helped him sell half a million copies of Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, which was followed by 2018’s Tearing at the Seams. Rateliff had previously tried his hand as an alt-rocker and singer-songwriter, so it was charming to see him rumble into his lane, even if it seemed a less likely one than his previous attempts at finding the right sound.
Rateliff’s latent genre slipperiness comes through on his new album, a solo set recorded sans the Night Sweats that turns away from soul music into a much more somber setting as he processes a divorce and the death of his friend, the musician-producer Richard Swift. The songs are built around his thick, tender voice and acoustic guitar playing, “They say you learn a lot out there, how to scorch and burn / Gonna have to bury your friends and then you’ll find it get worse,” sings Rateliff, who often seems to be singing in a kind of dialog with his dead friend.
At times the music can be equally despondent; “Tonight #2” evokes the Leonard Cohen of Songs of Love and Hate, as Rateliff’ leavens Cohen-esque vocal cadences with his own welcoming Rocky Mountain warmth. The record’s final song “Rush On” is desolately primal; Rateliff’s afflicted wail is starkly visceral, answered by banshee peels of distant guitar.
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Usually, though, Rateliff is too much of an innate crowd-pleaser to let the music get too dire, even if it would be within his rights to do so. He often follows his dispirited heart into lovely melodic turns, as on the title track, a soft front-porch lope shaded by pedal steel and organ. The first sound we hear on the record is pretty acoustic and slide guitar, both played by Rateliff, and muted finger snaps, leading into a song about the final dissolution of his marriage delivered with admirable grace and equanimity. Harry Nilsson and the Van Morrison of Astral Weeks come through as influences throughout the LP, as if Rateliff is searching for comfort in beloved bedrock sounds. Similarly, “You Need Me” has an acoustic melody akin to Jackson Browne’s depressive classic “These Days,” with Rateliff singing “I’m the only one left on the sinking boat,” while still managing to salve his sentiment with a refrain of sweet “doo doo doo”s.
In the end, what could be an album of well-earned indulgence ends up being as much about reaching outward than burrowing inward, rendering deep personal suffering with a humane light touch. And It’s Still Alright the heartening sound of music pulling him through his pain, and, hopefully, past it into something like solace.