Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats “South of Here”

Stax Records, 2024

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats lay bare emotional struggles and doubts on their fourth studio album, “South of Here.”

artwork for Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats album "South of Here"“South of Here” is the latest album from Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, showcasing their brand of heartland rock that the band is bringing to a headlining tour, currently in Europe. They return for a mid-August stretch in the USA, counting on the allegiance of their fans as well as Rateliff’s dynamic, Jaggeresque stage presence to fill larger venues.  In September, they will be joining My Morning Jacket on a co-headliner junket with the two bands alternating opening or closing the shows.

Since honing their craft in rock venues around Colorado, the band has released four albums in less than a decade. This latest effort was produced by Brad Cook and recorded at Sonic Ranch outside El Paso, Texas. “South of Here” reckons with a lifetime of pain and trauma as Rateliff ruminates on the potent emotions that come to the surface. The album follows “And It’s Still Alright,” Rateliff’s 2020 solo LP, and “The Future,” the band’s acclaimed 2021 release.

“Brad was a great producer to write alongside. This album is a look into my own struggles with anxiety, insecurity, and also shares stories of my life. He encouraged me to take responsibility by the narrative in the songs and write about what’s happening in my own life,” Rateliff noted. “These recordings were made together in a room with my closest friends. I hope the songs and stories give you an opportunity to better understand your own struggles, whatever they may be.”

Lyrically, the album feels like it could have been another Rateliff solo effort, though the music comes across as that of a tight-knit band. Adding horns is a nice touch to “South of Here’s” 11 original tracks, all written by Rateliff (vocals, guitar) and backed by The Night Sweats: Luke Mossman (guitar), Joseph Pope III (bass), Mark Shusterman, (Hammond B3, piano), Patrick Meese (drums, piano), Daniel Hardaway (trumpet), Jeff Dazey (tenor sax), and Andreas Wild (baritone sax).

Its foremost theme hovers in a perpetual state of “Who am I, where am I going and why is life so hard?” That’s not breaking any new ground previous records haven’t already explored, in searching for truth like metal detectorists Andy and Lance (“The Detectorists”) trudging the fields of rural Suffolk hoping to unearth valuable treasures. They display the same energy and confident strut throughout that has been their calling card from the beginning. It’s a stark contrast to the array of emotions projected in the songs, ranging from vivid portraits of loss, addiction, anger, guilt, sadness, and probably a few others to sort out.

This makes perfect sense considering that before Rateliff could focus on making a new album he had to steady himself. He recalls struggling with an unusual level of anxiety for months. “I was not in a great headspace,” he says. “I was neurotic about imperfection. Any detail that was off was a real distraction that was keeping my mind in this constant state of negativity.” In January of 2023, he headed to North Carolina to work with Cook. During the ten days spent together, they broke through the haze of anxiety and doubt, finding a rhythm and writing a handful of songs for Rateliff to bring back.

The album’s title track ponders the possibility of survival and reinvention. It was one of the last songs Rateliff penned and sums up much of what he’d been feeling. “So much has changed in my life and for us as a band, and I’m grateful for it,” he said. “At the start of my career, it felt like the bottom was going to drop out and now, for the moment anyway, it seems to be sustainable. But when things become too much for me, I think about disappearing and never getting on the stage again.”

There’s no overlooking the driving ‘Heartless,’ the single chosen to pave the way for “South of Here.” It’s becoming an in-demand staple of playlists on Sirius radio and all the usual streaming services. The song references a time years ago when Rateliff and Night Sweats bassist Joseph Pope III left their Missouri hometown and settled out west. “My childhood left me so broken that I didn’t know/We were coming out even,” Rateliff sings, recalling the hardships they encountered. Their long, arduous journey is further explored on the closing song, ‘Time Makes Fools of Us All,’ referencing Pope’s battle with cancer. “When disease came to steal you, I shaved my head and mourned.”

‘Get Used to the Night’ is a propulsive tune supported by the effective use of horns. Here Rateliff pays homage to his friend and collaborator Richard Swift, whose untimely death from alcoholism was a traumatic wake-up call. “You run ahead and I’ll catch up to you/Still so much left for me to do,” he sings with tender resignation.

‘David and Goliath’ once again addresses the emotional struggles everyone faces in one way or another, though not in the biblical sense the title suggests that with God nothing is impossible. The song fails to provide any resolution, instead circling back to all the elusive questions, harmful patterns and lingering doubts littered like fast food wrappers and crushed soda cans on the curb of Rateliff’s psyche.

Fans of the band will likely adore this new outing, while those just discovering them will either join their devotees or turn elsewhere, not unlike the reception accorded to bands such as JJ Grey & Mofro and Marshall Tucker.

“I always try to put some bit of hope in there,” Rateliff said, attempting to burn off some of the gloom his lyrics project. “The world feels pretty bleak right now, but nobody needs me to say that. We have to continue to figure out a reason to make things better.” It serves no purpose remaining “alone in my head,” a phrase from ‘Center of Me,’ especially if his catchy woe-is-me songs lead to success on the charts.

7/10
7/10

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