I first saw Nathaniel Rateliff at the Music Hall during last year’s CMJ, and I was immediately struck by his voice: deep, sturdy and reassuring in the lower registers, like a slightly less weary Bill Callahan, but then soaring and almost wild when things got louder. He remained in complete command of the audience all the way through, with incredibly intense songs about death and extreme sadness, and I couldn’t help thinking I’d found in him what everyone else had found in Bon Iver a year or so earlier. His debut full-length (under his own name, that is; he’d recorded previously as The Wheel), In Memory of Loss, comes out today, and it delivers on all that promise from the show.
Recorded by Brian Deck (who you may know from his time in the band Califone, or as the producer on just about everything Iron and Wine has ever released), the album (streaming here) is a bit more subdued than I was expecting; it won’t exactly be soundtracking your summer BBQs, but it may be perfect for the lonely ride home. The arrangements are delicate and nicely textured, with piano, strings and vocal harmonies offering relief from Rateliff’s considerable, no-nonsense presence. The standard alt-folk influences are there, from Nick Drake to Gram Parsons of course, but there are also hints of a weakness for classic pop: by the second half of the album, when things really start to click, melody replaces starkness as the main attraction. But then you go back to the beginning, and you realize it was all there all along—the melody, the atmospherics, the stories. It’s one of the best albums of the year.
Hear Rateliff talk about it, and play some songs from it, here: