The struggle between producing content that music consumers want to hear and staying true to the artist’s heart is, and has been, the plight of the singer/songwriter since the genre gained traction. It’s the fine balance every artist struggles with until they finally decide to do what every artist before them has done — release an album that strays far from their traditional sound in an attempt to reach new and profound conclusions. Nathaniel Ratecliff embraces this cliche on And It’s Still Alright, his third solo album. He grapples with his recent divorce and the death of a close friend, dedicating the album to processing the loneliness and sorrow of loss. After breaking into the music scene by belting burly soul music with the Night Sweats, Rateliff has swung to the other extreme of Americana, designing this album to be intimate, confessional and cathartic — everything a Night Sweats album is not.
Taking a more stripped back approach, the album focuses on Rateliff’s vocals and acoustic guitar while all other elements (soft strings, muted finger snaps and quiet percussion) seem to fall around the centerpiece. “Time Stands” is a collage of ideas — waiting for true love, mourning a failed relationship and the harshness of passing time — which ultimately creates a meaningless yet profound account of losing the one you love. “Time stands in a duel and I stand for you,” Rateliff bellows over an acoustic guitar backed by a high-pitched organ, as if to create a glimmer of light shining through darkness.
The album’s raw aesthetic oddly clashes with its intentions for a close listen. Rateliff mumbles over twangy guitar riffs, producing a vocal performance that lacks any shape or mood. He writes to burrow inward, inviting listeners into that part of himself, but his slurred phrasing and lazy diction contradicts this invitation. The album’s final track, “Rush On,” is one of the more somber tracks on the album, featuring low guitars, a heavy bass drum and Rateliff lethargically stringing together lyrics whose meanings get lost in his long, drawn out mumbling.
But Rateliff doesn’t leave the album too somber. The album’s first track, “What A Drag,” is a bluesy, playful tune that contrasts its rather melancholy lyrics. “I left, I left feeling alone / But you can undo it, man,” Rateliff sings with twangy optimism. The album’s title track is also more optimistic in nature with its graceful front porch strides and light, upbeat guitar riffs.
While the album is beautiful in its raw, authentic approach to music and the human experience, Rateliff has clearly fallen into the cliche singer-songwriter trap. He uses this album to dig deep into his “real emotions,” but takes an exaggerated step away from his retro, soulful sound with the Night Sweats, overemphasizing how this album is supposed to deliver something different than anything he’s ever written before. Despite this misstep, And It’s Still Alright delivers some heavy emotions with grace, and like much of the folk music we hear today, reminds us of how music can pull us out of our pain and suffering.