Smack dab in the middle of Nicki Bluhm’s new album, To Rise You Gotta Fall, comes her slow-burning, plain-spoken, yet powerfully punchy version of Dan Penn’s soul-wrencher “I Hate You.” It’s the perfect moment on an album filled with reflections on the regrets of love lost, the celebrations of leaving behind the dreadful and sorrowful moments of that love, and the hope for a life cleansed of such moments. In vocals straight out of a Muscle Shoals session (Bluhm recorded the album at Sam Phillips Sun Studio), she delivers a soul shout: “It’s funny how a heart that loved you one time/Could be filled with so much anger for you and your kind/I hate you, oh how I hate you/I get bitter each time you run through my mind … I’m trying to hate you right out of my mind.” “I Hate You” is a little like a palate cleanser, for songs that precede it witness the demise and fall of a love, and the songs that follow shout out the affirmation that life’s gonna be okay, even if it still involves regrets and struggles.
To Rise You Gotta Fall, which was produced by Matt Ross-Spang (who also plays guitar on the album), opens with a languorous chamber waltz, “How Do I Love You,” that finds the singer declaring, “We’re losing each other/So let’s make a change/The only way to stay together/Is to give it space.” Prior to this declaration, though, she counts out the moments that make the relationship memorable: “One for a smile/Two for a laugh/Three for your hands/On the small of my back/Four for a moment/Where we feel the same/Five for our eyes easing into pain.”
A Memphis soul stew, the title track features Will Sexton’s scorching guitar riffs snaking around funky B3 and horns and the best, canniest lyrics on the album. After losing her love, the singer goes home to her momma and falls across her door, crying. In her knowing way, her momma says that “whatever doesn’t kill you only makes your story longer.” The singer concludes and determines to live with the uncomfortable but undeniable truth that “it’s the bumpy roads/That lead you where you need to go/And bring you home.”
“Staring at the Sun” opens sparely with piano and vocals (the piano chords resemble the opening bars of Warren Zevon’s “Hasten Down the Wind”) before building to a cascading wall of music with echoes of Phil Spector’s pop songs and The Beatles of the White Album; Will Sexton’s leads on the bridge echo George Harrison’s weeping guitar. By the end of the song, the singer declares her ambivalence — love burns, but she can’t avoid looking it in the face. “I close my eyes and see your face/As if I’m staring at the sun … Do you close your eyes and see my face? … I’m afraid to hear you sing/That velvet voice leading me on/And on and on and on.”
Nicki Bluhm’s crystalline vocals and her canny songwriting lay bare the ragged ways we fall out of relationships and the halting ways we try to move forward. The Memphis soul settings of most of these songs delivers the just-right musical structure. To Rise You Gotta Fall weaves moments of devastation into beautiful tunes that embrace ambiguity even in the midst of determination to find some clarity in the loss of love.