Amidst throwback soul vanguard
Vintage soul is having a moment. It will fall to the cultural anthropologists of the future to decipher what it is about the current era that has bred so ravenous an appetite for throwback R&B, but for now, we can’t argue that it has yielded some gems. Burgeoning artists like Leon Bridges, Anderson East, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, The Olympians and Lake Street Dive are thriving and full of promise, while late bloomers like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley owe their tragically brief but illustrious careers to the current prominence of novelty.
Nathaniel Rateliff figures interestingly into this scene since, until fairly recently, he was nowhere near it. Beginning his career in the country/folk-leaning troubadour mold, Rateliff formed The Night Sweats seemingly as an experiment in contrast with his prior aesthetic and, reportedly, as a final effort at making a true career in music. We know how that went. After one album, 2015s Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Rateliff is now the epicenter of the soul revival and a singular one at that; he is probably one of the only artists in that milieu who can justifiably claim Leonard Cohen as a primary influence.
What does one do after finding such runaway success on a stylistic hard left? They are tricky waters to navigate but Rateliff does so effectively, if a bit too safely, on his second album with The Night Sweats, Tearing At the Seams, an easy album to enjoy and one that is, in terms of mood, a near simulacrum of its predecessor. Rateliff has found a band in The Night Sweats that can masterfully reconcile his artistic polyvalence, hitting tough and tender, roof-raising and soul-gazing, with aplomb. Each half of Tearing At the Seams kicks off with monstrous Southern funk, swaggering on “Shoe Boot” and barn-burning on “Intro.” The rhythm section occupies a very deep, danceable pocket shared by punchy horns and overlaid with echoing guitars, furious organ work and Rateliff’s impassioned hollers (partnering again with producer Richard Swift proves a wise choice as the collective here hones and reinforces a swiftly identifiable signature sound, something that eludes many lesser revivalists). Many of the upbeat numbers succeed unreservedly – “A Little Honey” and “Say It Louder” stand out especially – but others, like “Be There” and “Coolin’ Out,” are wont to lose attention and it’s difficult to say whether it’s because they are lesser songs or are simply redundant. There’s bottomless superficial pleasure but only so much genuine surprise to be found in musical forms as well trodden as these.
The band has impressive range, though, fully displayed on tracks like the more subdued “Hey Mama” and “Babe I Know.” In the former, the singer movingly recounts getting some perspective in the form of a kick in the ass from his mother: “You ain’t gone far enough to say / At least I tried / You ain’t worked hard enough to say / Well I’ve done mine / You ain’t walked far enough to say / My legs have failed.” The relaxed, conflicted “Still Out There Running” might feature the best writing on the album as Rateliff plays a lover trying to negotiate his own and his partner’s divergent paths. “Yeah maybe / We could find a place to stretch our wings / Rest upon cliffs overlooking scenes / Scenes we don’t write and we don’t fall between / Or we just fall in again.” Although the writing is consistently good on Tearing At the Seams, it is a bit less adventurous than one might hope. Pretty songs get pretty words and party songs get party words but nothing quite matches the complex jubilant darkness of “S.O.B.,” one of the most distinctive tunes on the band’s debut, which is a shame, but a minor one.
All of the issues with Tearing At the Seams are minor ones ultimately if they can be called “issues” at all. It’s hard to fault Rateliff and The Night Sweats for succeeding their unexpectedly successful debut with as similar an album as this one turns out to be. Not many artists outside of David Bowie and Neil Young are in the “now for something completely different” school of following up massive hits, and even their careers weren’t so nascent before they started pulling rugs from under feet. Rateliff notably offered one of the album’s tightest, most intense, most evolved songs, “You Worry Me,” as its lead single, a shrewd move, and though its promise isn’t fully realized by Tearing At the Seams, it signifies more growth and quality ahead. This band is one to stick with.