A Great River
Nate Hall describes himself as a 'Longhair guitar player on a negative trip'. If his band commitment, the dazzling US Christmas, are a long, dark night of the soul, then his solo material is the hangover. 'A Great River' takes a pretty low feeling and just runs with it. In this sense, it is a brave release; in fear of coming off as depressive whiners, so many artists seem to retreat to abstraction or crass self-help 'PMA' psychotwaddle. The instinctive honesty here burns through, a black ray devoid of pretension or posture; you are left in no doubt that these days have been lived.
It is indeed aptly named, both conceptually and musically. There is no drum accompaniment; simple acoustic structures are given flow by a kind of whirling electric broth of reverb-heavy slides and droning minor chords. All these ugly feelings and are swept along with the torrent, where something haunting and wondrous emerges. Hall's voice is as much beatific space rocker as it is a world-weary country drawl. The soldier of misfortune cries of 'The Earth in One Cell' ('Bad luck yearns / Feel its blood burn / You'll never leave bad luck alone.' ) sound both plagued and seduced by straying from the path of safety and happiness.
The tender, restrained 'Chains' and 'To Wake and Dream' draw us in closer, before 'Raw Chords', much like the opening two tracks, aches with despair but is nonetheless full of memorable vocal hooks. The production plays a major part in lending these minimal arrangements a heaviness to match the thematic gravity; at times, it somehow sounds massive.
Bypassing the artistic self-preservation mechanism, Hall does not attempt to hide from or overcome doubt and fear; they are laid bare. These songs peer into the abyss and describe the view. What provides 'A Great River' with the strength to prevent it from clinging is a sense of the constant presence of the elemental forces that render us insignificant, and a yearning to return to an origin within them. There is a ghostly wisdom in how he delivers lines like 'Fear it does have a great power / It eats up your life and leaves you behind / Leaves you with nothing to fear'.
Reviews often tend to make the mistake of judging an album as if it's the only thing you have the option of listening to, all the time. This is played from the fucking heart and it's a potent downer, but just because it's virtuous does not mean there shall be no more cakes and ale. Of course, it's performed in an established musical form, but the unadulterated expression on show means 'A Great River' articulates an empathy that is missing from most of the music I'm listening to. It hit me between the eyes straight away.
Posted: Thu 30 August 2012