Nathaniel Rateliff Embraces Life on “And It’s Still Alright”


Nathaniel Rateliff’s new album deals with themes such as fame and loss. (Courtesy of Facebook)

My first engagement with Nathaniel Rateliff came during an August 2015 performance on “The Tonight Show.” Backed by the triumphant instrumentals of the Night Sweats, Nathaniel Rateliff’s riveting, soulful voice on what would become a hit single, “S.O.B.,” struck a deep chord within me.

After the performance, I listened to his self-titled debut album, “Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats,” and have been a follower ever since. An EP, “A Little Something More From,” would follow, and the Night Sweats would find their most polished sound yet on their second studio album in 2018, “Tearing at the Seams.” Yet, after numerous hits, live performances and unprecedented success, Nathaniel Rateliff returned to his roots with his first solo album since 2013, “And It’s Still Alright.”

Rateliff cites this album as an important personal experience. Following a divorce from his wife and the death of producer and longtime friend Richard Swift, Rateliff used this album as both an outlet for pain and a means of moving forward. There is a tone of despair matched with a sense of beauty that, as the title suggests, is the lasting message of Rateliff’s latest work.

That message comes through in a variety of pieces, some more memorable than others. Rateliff’s opening track, “What a Drag,” possesses a vintage aura and succeeds in its simplicity. Other songs hold a similar tone, such as the raucous, albeit meaningless, “Expecting To Lose,” which does appear half-written, as I have seen other reviews suggest. “You Need Me,” written during his marriage, exudes a childlike fantasy with Rateliff’s more soft-spoken voice, while “Mavis” — supposedly not influenced by Rateliff’s friend and soul icon Mavis Staples — finds that lighthearted nature in the uplifting sounds coupled with its chorus. On the other hand, “Kissing Our Friends” tells of love lost, exemplifying the differing emotions of Rateliff’s life experiences.

Many of the earlier songs ensue in this passive manner. “Tonight #2” is a fitting example: an ideal background song with Rateliff’s voice at the forefront, filling in the gaps with peaceful melodic rhythms that evoke the forest on the album’s cover. For some songs, like the aforementioned “Tonight #2,” this style is largely successful, despite being different from what recent fans have come to expect. For other songs, those softer moments teeter on monotony, only finding life at certain moments, as is the case with “All Or Nothing,” which does not reach its stride until the latter half.

However, it is these softer moments that display Rateliff’s multifaceted artistic talent and make the album’s more memorable pieces stand tall.

One such piece is “Time Stands,” which Rateliff says he almost did not finish for fear that no one would like it. That same song is by far my favorite of the album, putting me at a standstill almost every time. The chorus — “Time stands in a duel and I stand for you” — is one of Rateliff’s best, and his voice, in all its anguish and desperation, makes it all the more memorable.

“Rush On,” a six-minute endurance test, with longing apparent throughout, is equally influential. Then there is the title track, one that seems to summarize all that the album is about, with moments of despair but a positive takeaway.

Ultimately, while some songs emerge as a bit meaningless, others stand out as some of the best work Rateliff has done yet. Compared to his original solo pieces, his latest represents a man who has achieved successes, yet is willing to embrace the struggles as well. As Rateliff says, those struggles are important to acknowledge, with this album acting as his way of moving through the pain.

Ultimately, this album is most important to Rateliff himself, and it is that value, elevated by an unrivaled voice, that grounds it throughout and, at its strongest moments, drives home the message of faith and gratitude with unabridged clarity.