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Album of the Week: Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats

by Mac Wilson

October 26, 2015

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, self-titled
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats' self-titled album.
Stax Records.

Nathaniel Rateliff tucked a pair of records into his oeuvre with relatively little hoopla in the early 2010s. As he sought to expand his horizons — and his reach — he did what anyone would do: he hooked up with a full-blown horn section. Enter The Night Sweats, with whom he has collaborated on a rousing new record, fittingly titled Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats.

The horns of the Night Sweats provide an immediate invigoration to Rateliff's sound, from the first notes of opener "I Need Never Get Old." As with so many of the classics from Stax Records (the label on which Rateliff released the new album), it's a song that sounds like it has existed forever, an energetic and catchy tune that sets the tone for the record, both in sound, tone and theme. Rateliff paints a picture of a man looking for a chance; if not the final chance, he's close to it, pleading for connection, needing love. The energy continues through the strong run of could-be singles on the first side (the CD art even delineates a clear-cut distinction between the first and second half of the album, as if still in the vinyl days) as "Howling at Nothing" and "Trying So Hard Not to Know" have already taken hold on The Current. Side Two is a tad more mellow (the album closer is even titled "Mellow Out!"), and Rateliff and the band maintain this catchy vibe throughout.

Rateliff's breakout hit is the occasionally polarizing, chart-topping "S.O.B." It is a song that has sparked conversations about its use of profanity, its depiction of addiction and its juxtaposition of said themes with an uproariously chipper melody. "S.O.B." takes on a new life when viewed in the context of the record — it's placed at the end of Side One, which indicates that Rateliff views it more as a pivotal thematic center, rather than as a mere hit single. The aspect of the song that has really sunk its claws into me has been the bridge, in which Rateliff wails "bugs are crawling all over me!" This haunting image, on its own, casts the song — and the rest of the album — in a stark light, and is all at once one of the most striking, gruesome and honest lyrical passages to ever make it into a chart-topping alternative hit single.

In collaborating with the Night Sweats, Rateliff has resoundingly achieved his goals of expanding both his sound and his audience. It's my hope that his next record is able to come from a place less rooted in darkness and more in the fun that Rateliff and the Night Sweats are clearly having.