Ottoman Turks frontman’s assured solo debut undulates like passing moods.
For the last decade and a little more, Nathan Mongol Wells has been plying his trade as frontman for Dallas-based country garage band Ottoman Turks. Here, on his solo debut ‘From A Dark Corner’, he takes Ottoman Turks’ ferocity and distils it to produce something shadier and unsettling. Wells blends a variety of styles – country, punk, blues, rockabilly, honky-tonk – to create a navy, neon, maroon and ochre soundscape buzzing with wildness, regret, sadness and a touch of fun amongst it all.
The album is thoughtfully sequenced, with an undulating flow akin to bursts of energy, anger, sorrow and reflection – from the urgency of tracks like ‘Juarez’ and ‘Road to Hell’, to the melancholy country-waltz of centrepiece ‘Taken for a Ride’ and gentle trot of ‘First Day it’s Warm’, with its acoustic guitar and tremolo bouzouki. This undulation mirrors the mood swings that accompany the themes explored across the album: the decay and ending of relationships both platonic and romantic, drinking and hellraising, rueing the loss of past times and self-reflection.
The first track is ‘Beulah Land’, a slinky, devilish number with churning organ, almost Romani or Greek folky guitars, and bright, honky-tonk piano. A lofty comparison it may be, but the first few lines are strangely reminiscent of Leonard Cohen. The lyrics focus on the breakdown of a friendship, a themeless often explored yet just as tragic and minable as the breakdown of a romantic relationship. The song crescendos in its back third, with the rising piano and Wells’ pained voice making for a highly dramatic piece.
Next up, ‘Juarez’, a bluesy rock’n’roller about hellraising, drinking and escapades in the imagined Mexican badlands, ups the tempo. Despite the hubris on show in some of the lyrics, Wells’ deft touch makes clear it’s all a little tongue in cheek as he sings: “Goin’ down to Juarez, what could possibly go wrong?” in the third verse. The verses are interspersed with noodling guitar solos which create a buzzing barroom atmosphere. The theme of drinking also appears on ‘Road to Hell’ and ‘Honest Drinking’, the latter an ambivalent look at excessive boozing and partying, which admits the fun but hints at the question of whether it’s all worthwhile: “There’s plenty of nights of drinking I don’t remember… Unlike most, that don’t mean regrets, I ain’t made many yet” but later: “Arguments, relationship woes, fist fights and terrible shows/ My body, my mind, my liver all bruised from the cup”. The mood is of someone beginning to question their choices, yet feeling almost bound by fate to carry on down their chosen path; this theme crops up across the album.
Broken promises, regret and fate also hang heavy over centrepiece ‘Taken for a Ride’, a sorrowful country waltz about failing to be a good partner, questioning one’s choices, yet not wanting to hurt people. The song descends from sad verse to tragic pre-chorus, before ascending to a beautifully melancholic chorus where the narrator lists his faults: “I’m a coward, I’m a loser, I’m a serial abuser/ Of the thoughts and of the feelings that you try so hard to hide”; however, despite this awareness, he cannot change: “somewhere in my mind, I’m resigned to my fate”. This is the kernel of the song’s sadness: failing to live up to the hopes of who you could be, and facing the uncertainty of where to turn next.
Other heavy-hearted songs include ‘In Years’ and ‘Knew You’, the first a classic country song with pedal steel and lonely-sounding piano, the latter a bluesy country track with doowop-style backing vocals in the later choruses. Both tracks seem to deal with deterioration of a friendship; less angry than on ‘Beulah Land’, these characters are more resigned to the fact that people and relationships change over time: “It used to be all by design, ain’t been that way in years” – the heart-rending chord sequences, sparkling piano and sad pedal steel evoke a lonely porch at night, under streetlamps on the edge of some middling Texan town. The addressee in ‘Knew You’ is slightly ambiguous, and Wells suggests an inkling of concern for his former partner: “Now I often see you at 3am, and you’re smoking those cigarettes/ Impossibly small and impossibly thin, alone on the concrete step” – it’s a striking line full of pathos, yet it also begs the question, what is it drawing the narrator out at 3am? The story is open-ended and intriguing.
It’s also worth noting ‘Rather Go to Hell’, a woes-of-working-life song with Ottoman Turks bandmate and now successful solo musician Joshua Ray Walker featuring on backing vocals. The track is a bluesy, punky, folk-rocker with specific lyrics redolent of hot, sweaty manual labour: “Mexican radio echoes up the hallway, swelterin’ a hundred degrees”. Tremolo mandolin and bouzouki give the song a rustic, workmanlike edge.
‘From A Dark Corner’ is a strong debut offering from Nathan Mongol Wells, but that’s not surprising from someone with his experience and savvy. He effectively covers a broad range of moods and recreates the energy of live performance on this album, full of interesting characters and clever songwriting. The musicianship is of a high standard, with subtle but impactful organs, perfectly placed pedal steel, and chunky rhythms. This album certainly has a darkness to it, but there are plenty of memorable tracks and even some fun along the way too.