My introduction to Nathaniel Rateliff was the 2012 Revival Tour; I’d gone to see Cory Branan and Chuck Ragan, but the rest of the audience was there to see Laura Jane Grace (then Tom Gabel) and an impromptu Alkaline Trio reunion. I hadn’t expected Rateliff. Instead of a shouting folk set or a swaggering punk one, he was muted and measured. Rateliff’s restraint was palpable, only letting us in on his true voice during the stellar “Whimper And Wail”. The rest of the crowd seemed restless, but I was hooked. The only record he had for sale was his first, 2007’s Desire & Dissolving Men, and it’s been an early morning/late night stalwart for me ever since. Just as with his live performance it seemed like Rateliff was baring his soul, but carefully, excruciatingly. He was more likely to whisper as to yell, and his sound was equally restrained.
All of that went right straight to hell and back when he wrote the songs on Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. The record opens with the energetic “I Need Never Get Old” and the toetappers don’t stop until the last notes of the supremely appropriately titled closing track, “Mellow Out”. Rateliff is now signed to Stax records, and took up the mantle of that label with gusto. His band features an organ, a horn section, and a bass line powerful enough to move your hips of its own accord. Every one of these songs is undeniably soul and undeniably Rateliff. His pace hasn’t changed, his overlayed vocals haven’t changed, the emotional intensity of his lyrics haven’t changed…he just has a bigger band and a hell of a lot more fun.
In the second track, “Howling At Nothing”, a pleading shuffle featuring an errant guitar, Rateliff pleads: “So let me in, or let me down!” Many songs on the record are similar entreaties to a lover, past or present. It overflows with eloquent phrasing, some of which is deeply gut-wrenching, and it does so over an eminently dance-able beat. This record is what happens when heartbreak grows sick of navel gazing and decides to cry out to the heavens while shaking its hips. “Mean what you said, and mean it to me,” he says
The centerpiece and standout track of the record is undoubtedly “S.O.B.”, which Rateliff and his band played recently on The Late Show to critical acclaim. It bears the hallmarks of modern Americana popularity: call and response, clapping, and swearing. Keeping the song in the real world, in addition to the undeniably catchy tune, is Rateliff’s lyrical ability. Unlike other anthems of debauchery, “S.O.B.” is about begging someone to help you get clean…and about how hard sobriety is to find and keep. Unlike other stars playing world-weary songs of sin on late night TV, you get the impression that Ratelliff has seen some shit.
I’ve got to admit that the Late Show appearance is hard for me to swallow. I think we’ve hit peak beard-hat-denim in American pop culture, and if I had seen Rateliff play without knowing his work I might have written him off as another manufactured cash grab. Success shouldn’t be held against the successful, however, and Rateliff is the real deal. This self-titled record is fun to listen to, it sounds like Rateliff is having fun playing it, and I’ll take tortured joy over tortured agony any day.
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats is Essential Listening.