A Newbury Comics exclusive color vinyl pressing.
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats practically explodes with deep, primal and ecstatic soulfulness. This stunning work isn’t just soul stirring, it’s also soul baring, and the combination is absolutely devastating to behold. You don’t just listen to this record—you experience it. So it’s entirely fitting that the self-titled album will bear the iconic logo of Stax Records, because at certain moments Rateliff seems to be channeling soul greats like Otis Redding and Sam & Dave. But as this gifted multi-instrumentalist honors the legacy of the legendary Memphis label, he’s also setting out into audacious new territory.
Those who were beguiled by In Memory of Loss, Rateliff’s folky, bittersweet 2010 Rounder album, will be in for an initial shock when they spin Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. But when you delve beneath the rawboned surface of the new album’s wall-rattling presentation, with its deep-gut grooves, snaky guitars, churning Hammond and irresistible horns, you’ll find that same sensitive, introspective dude, who bravely tells it like it is, breaking through his reticence to expose often harsh truths about the life he’s lived, the people he’s hurt and the despair he’s struggled with. The difference between the two albums is that the Nights Sweats’ funkiness insulates the starkly confessional nature of Rateliff’s songs while at the same time underscoring their emotional extremes.
The place where Rateliff is coming from is intensely real and intimate. Doing what he does is an act of bravery. “These songs are about the struggles I’ve had in my life—drinking too much, that kind of crap,” he says with characteristic candor, punctuating the admission with a rueful laugh. “And then the relationships we all have. I’m not a great communicator in my personal life, so it’s funny to be writing songs that say the things that I’m never very good at saying. It’s taken me a long time to figure that out. I’m trying to be a better communicator, but it’s horribly awkward—it’s awful—to tell somebody something you know is gonna hurt their feelings. I’ve always been one to go, oh, I’ll just eat this one; it’ll be okay.”
As the band blazes away on the soul-rock rave-up “I Need Never Get Old,” the visceral “Howling at Nothing” and the supercharged “Trying So Hard Not to Know” (key line: “Who gives a damn and very few can”), which open the album with a sustained outpouring of torrid intensity, Rateliff is opening himself up emotionally as well as physically, the raw grit in his voice conveying anguish and hope in equal measure. The buoyant immediacy of the music makes the hard truths embedded in the songs easier to swallow than it would be in Rateliff’s other primary mode—a solitary guy with a guitar, the brim of his baseball cap pulled down, putting his heart and guts on the line without the protection of his simpatico cohorts. Make no mistake, these songs would stop you in their tracks presented in that naked way as well, but the additional layers of soulfulness provided by the Night Sweats—its core comprising guitarist Joseph Pope III, drummer Patrick Meese and keyboardist Mark Shusterman—bring a convergence of intensities, musical and psychological, to the performances.
“S.O.B.” sits at the dead center of the album, between the brutally honest confessionals “I’ve Been Failing” and “Wasted Time.” Thematically, the song is the album’s linchpin—partly a rebuke, partly a cry of defiance, “S.O.B” is the “fuck it all” anthem of a blue-collar kid from the Heartland whose conditioned idea of therapy is a shot and a beer chaser, and then another round, on the way to sweet oblivion. In live performance, Rateliff and the Sweats have been known to mash together “S.O.B.” and The Band’s “The Shape I’m In” as the double-barreled climax of their sets (you can find it on YouTube), the frontman high-stepping and boogalooing across the stage with controlled abandon, bearing a striking resemblance in his physicality to the young Van Morrison. These moments of revelry are also revelatory, singling out two of Rateliff’s biggest influences. Indeed, he hears distinct evocations of The Band on his new album, and he was listening to “TB Sheets” and the rest of Morrison’s The Bang Masters as he was writing it.
From there Rateliff contemplates some of the sustaining aspects of existence, from redemption by way of the forgiving love of another in “Thank You,” “Look It Here” and “I’d Be Waiting” to sexual heat in the N’awlins-style strutter “Shake.” The album ends on a hopeful note with the relatively laidback “Mellow Out,” which could certainly be heard as Rateliff admonishing himself to do just that. “Originally, I had it ending with a song called ‘How to Make Friends,’” he says. “The chorus is ‘When everybody knows you, nobody’s gonna want you.’” Another laugh follows, this one self-mocking. “But I replaced it with ‘Mellow Out,’ which is more of a release rather than a total bummer.”
“Writing at home is one of my favorite things to do,” says this constitutionally solitary man. “But for years touring was really hard for me—being alone, being married and having my relationship run through the mire, because a lot of my songs are about that. Sometimes it sucks to sing those songs and have to relive those situations. It leaves you pretty exposed, and your partner too; it can be unfair. But now I love being on stage and cracking jokes, trying not to take myself too seriously, even if the material is about failed relationships and alcoholism, that kind of stuff”—there’s that rueful laugh again.
“I try to be lighthearted,” Rateliff continues, “because, although the songs are heavy, I want it to be a release for people. I’m trying to do something that’s emotionally charged and heartfelt, and I want the experience to be joyous, for people to feel excited and dance around instead of being super-bummed by reality—I mean, things are hard. But I can remember dancing around to some song that was breakin’ my heart, dancin’ with tears in my eyes. I love that feeling, and I wanna share it with people, and hopefully they’ll feel it too.”
Album includes a digital download.