Acclaimed writer and poet Nathaniel Bellows is easily one of the best writers of his generation; his work distinguished enough to have appeared in the Paris Review and The Best American Short Stories compilation. Therefore it should be no surprise that his songwriting abilities match to boot, his third effort as a musician – an album simply titled Three – arguably being the crown jewel of that success.
In an era where musicians affiliated with both major and independent labels are swaying with the oncoming trends, the concept of quality over quantity is finally beginning to reign supreme again. In the case of Bellows, his work arguably belongs in the superior camp. Any great musician is fundamentally a storyteller, someone who not only entertains but can transport. With his stark yet sentimental visions, Bellows treads a fine line between throwback to the greats (think Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, and Dwight Yoakam) with a surprisingly thoughtful dose of post-modern delicacy. He retains a distinct masculinity which doesn’t hamper thoughtful ideas and a well of emotional depth.
While Bellows’ previous efforts The Old Illusions and Swan and Wolf followed this formula respectfully, there’s something about his new work which is distinctly sweeter and less harsh. That’s not to say the stark juxtaposition between grime and beauty isn’t still there, rather it’s more tempered, Bellows’ vocals – callous as ever – more relaxed. Perhaps this transition doesn’t merely evoke the concept of a creative evolution, but also a personal one as well. Each album, notably self-distributed by Bellows, was reportedly conceived during a time of intense personal crisis. As a result, this only strengthens the passionate and sometimes melancholy undercurrents of Bellows’ songs, in the case of Three the tracks ‘Move On’ and ‘Split Lip’ particular examples of this. The communication of such raw vulnerability through an intensely masculine medium is nothing new, but with Bellows it is uncommonly real and immersive.
The musical arrangements of each song also illustrates Bellows’ stripped, bare aesthetic. In ‘Move On’, he essentially sings about the literal embodiment of this – his harsh whisper crooning Aim away from here, only a fool would stay if just to leave for free…Can I say this, take all we saved as kids… Bellow’s voice is arguably the real star of the show, not saved by way of autotune or excess instruments. Much of the music aside from his vocals comes from the simple strumming of an old-school guitar, complete with the occasional bass and keyboard coming from the back of the room. That makes one or two tracks on the album, complete with cymbals and light drumming, something of a wakeup call to the listener. The album, while immersive, never truly loses the element of surprise.
In many ways, one could argue Nathaniel Bellows is a product of another time. Yet a product who has aged well into the current musical stratosphere. While he’s preaching to a particular choir, it’s a choir that’s alive and well – especially amongst the millennial entertainment markets. He isn’t interested in pleasing or patronizing the listener, but rather seems intent on offering them an invitation into his world. We recommend you accept.