Prescient or just ahead of his time?
Nathaniel Rateliff, best known as the full-bodied/full throated frontman of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, the kind of all-action soul band made for a pumping full bar of drinkers and dancers, may have made the ideal album to take into isolation. By turning our expectations on their head.
His solo record, And It’s Still Alright, is the antithesis of the two records we know from the Night Sweats, being quiet, mellow, coated with sadness and candour, leaning more on country and soul. While a Night Sweats record might be itching to get out of the house, ditch social distancing and part-tay, as Australians saw in thrilling and rambunctious shows three years ago , Rateliff on his own has come to comfort us.
“I hadn’t planned on this,” he says with a rueful chuckle. “But it’s kind of a joke that I’d been talking about the importance of finding joy and hope in times of hopelessness [before covid19]. Now I have to put it into practice.”
In truth, this was the record Rateliff had to make after a breakup and then the death of his good friend, Night Sweats producer and critically-acclaimed songwriter Richard Swift – both in 2018.
“Some of the songs I was working on while we were making the second Night Sweats record and I knew they were not going to be Night Sweats songs,” he says. “I ended up with all these songs I knew I needed to write about but at the time [of the breakup] I wasn’t able to express what I wanted to; I needed time, but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted the Night Sweats to be.”
In the early stages of planning, he and Swift were talking about making this solo album together, and then a lifetime of alcohol and despair unexpectedly caught up with Swift. Inevitably, some of the record then became about that loss, in particular the title track (“They say you learn a lot out there/How to scorch and burn/Only have to bury your friends”) and Rush On (“I'd hoped like a prayer/That your brokenness would leave you/But months turned to years/And the emptiness prevailed”).
What did he want to convey to Swift, as much as to us?
“I guess I wanted to let him know that I recognised his pain and I guess his struggle,” says Rateliff. “I think it’s that same thing that a lot of this deal with, it’s just hard for us to give ourselves space to accept. Sometimes there is an unexplainable brokenness that we have and we don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable to it or even be vulnerable enough to let people know that’s how we feel.”
Rather than say Otis Redding or any other classic soul man, the strongest influence on this album appears to be that now often forgotten purveyor of beautiful and often enough beautifully sad pop, Harry Nilsson. Friend and drinking buddy of John Lennon and Keith Moon, possessor of a gently persuasive voice, in songs like One, Without You, Everybody’s Talkin’ and even the bouncy Cuddly Toy which was recorded by the Monkees, Nilsson always seemed to have an undercurrent of hurt that no amount of soothing, or wine, could resolve and yet offered solace to a listener.
“I think you hear something in his voice in some of those songs that shows his own vulnerability. I don’t know that we have a lot of singers like that now,” says the Nillson fan.
And while Rateliff wouldn’t put himself in that category, it’s fair to say that if And It’s Still Alright is a breakup record, it’s one of the very rare ones that comes without any obvious bitterness, but rather a search for something better. Which is why it may be an ideal soundtrack for home isolation and social distancing.
“It’s still hard – nobody really wins in that situation – and sometimes you feel like you are just walking away like a beat dog. But I guess the point of the record is accepting that we’re still here, that I am still here, whatever those hardships are, and trying to find something good out of all of this.”
That attitude though, probably provides the most direct link back to the Night Sweats – half of whom played on the record and were in his touring band - whose brief had always been to make the good out of all of this.
“When we performed those songs, we performed with the same intent and excitement of a Night Sweats show,” Rateliff says, knowing it’s a bit of a tease for Australian audiences whose shows were cancelled.
For now we’ll have to take his word for it. But if we need comforting, Rateliff is offering.
And It’s Still Alright is out now.
A version of this story first ran in the Sydney Morning Herald