"Black Crow Blue," the title track from Nathan Bell’s most recent album on Stone Barn Records, opens with the question: “Have you ever seen a sky so wide/That you could fit the whole world inside. I have.” He then inquires, “Baby, can you see me now?” Here in this tender ballad, inspired by writer Glen Hirshberg’s Book of Bunk, Nathan displays his sensitive and attuned eye for poetic metaphors that are sparse yet accurate descriptors of love, hardship, and what is, at times, the inexplicable journey we’re all on in our lives.
He captures what it means to be alone and, particularly, what it means to put love at the forefront of anything else that we think matters.
It is in this, with Nathan's sharp gaze at life, that his songs illuminate how we all are taken in and either worn smooth or left ragged by this journey. Nathan credits much of his inspiration for songs from the works of well-established writers: Hirshberg, Sebastian Matthews, and his father: poet, Marvin Bell, amongst others.
Yet, his songs stand as unique creative works in their own right as well. One doesn’t need to know all of the literary references to still get his music.
In “American Crow,” Nathan describes his character Crow as a man who never stays put, symbolized by “ . . . tattooed wings beneath [his] skin.” In this opening line, I hear echoes of the “Crow’s” who have passed through my life. I acknowledge my own impulse to take flight at various junctures. When he sings, “Black feathers/Hollow bones/Nowhere left/For the light to go/ Sitting on a fence post at the side of the road, American Crow,” I’m reminded of Paul D in Toni Morrison’s Beloved who “ . . . didn’t believe he could live with a woman---any woman---for over two out of three months. That was as long as he could abide in one place.” I suspect that Crow, like Paul D, leaves because it’s the only way he feels free, and it’s a liberation that dodges heartache.
Nathan’s songs lay bare the inclination to wrap ourselves in deceits so that we might avoid facing our own mortality and flaws. In “Me and Larry,” Nathan reminisces on his connection with the late-writer, Larry Brown. He sings, “Somehow always in the end/We become the tales we tell.” Later, he reflects, “It was twenty years ago my friend/When I thought that we weren’t mortal men.” He traces the trajectory of believing in time eternal just where it fades as we approach middle age, an age when we begin to experience the loss of others, once young with us.
Black Crow Blue, however, isn’t a bleak album.
Yes, Nathan writes about tough times, exploitation, and unfair treatment. But he never neglects the thread of love or shard of hope that holds us together. We hear this in “A Stone’s Throw” when he sings of a man barely getting by, reeling from a bad economy and poverty. While others want to turn their heads in shame, the singer tells us, “But I look them in the eyes/Say man, it’s me, don’t you realize/We’re all we’ve got if we’re going to survive.” Ultimately, the song stresses that type of survival: through community, even in the face of unjustness.
(A notable mention here: “Stone’s Throw Away” was picked up by singer Lizanne Knott for her upcoming 2013 release Standing in the English Rain. She does a kick-ass rendition and arrangement, worthy of checking out.)
On the album’s closing track, “We All Get Gone,” Nathan digs into a strict blues groove, his wailing harmonica getting as much play time as his vocals. He moans, “ . . . I’m just traveling/Watch me traveling away/Cause get it right or get wrong, sooner or later/We all get gone.” Despite the resolute attitude of the singer, Nathan conveys a candor that is welcoming and intimate. I’m feeling as though I’m sitting at a coffeehouse table one dusky evening while Nathan strums, picks, toots his harmonica, and lights up the stage with his voice.
Throughout Black Crow Blue, Nathan’s vocals, measured and at times with a grittiness reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen, deliver the lyrics with clear-headed certainty of the stories he tells. His descriptive guitar playing, forceful when necessary, provides the clean well-structured melodies that turn his poems to song. In Nathan’s writing are songs that encourage the listeners to claim the poetry of our own lives and to find the songs in others’. It’s a good way to think about being in this world.