Nathan Bell – “Blood Like a River” (Album Review/Memoir)
Songwriter and guitarist Nathan Bell’s recent release, Blood Like a River, is a beautiful album that gives testimony to our wish as humans to be invincible and timeless while also giving credence to those moments when the thought of fading out like a numbed junkie on the streets, checked out from the abrasiveness of life, doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. It’s an album where a robber’s stick-up becomes a metaphor for losing nothing and accepting everything. Blood Like a River captures the paradox that our relationships to each other and to society sustain us while our identity can never be defined by these relationships alone.
When Nathan sent me a review copy of Blood Like a River, I wanted to write about it with the same distant objectivity that I did in my review of his album Black Crow Blue. But this album, Blood Like a River, felt like a personal conversation, a friend’s unearthing of their soul that shouldn’t be retold. It also made a difference this time that Nathan is my brother.
My mother is his biological mother, but another woman is his Mom. I didn’t meet Nathan until I was in my 40s, although I first became aware of his existence when I was sixteen with two other brothers in the house and my mother with whom I was often in a state of conflict. One afternoon after getting the mail, my mother entered the kitchen with a letter in her hand about our “ . . . brother, my first son,” she announced with what felt to me as nonchalance; maybe she was in shock. Over the years, Nathan became like a fable – this distant kin whom I’d never met. My mother’s stories of her brief marriage to Nathan’s dad and the impulse that led her to leave their life in Chicago and return home to upstate New York became a source of unending curiosity to me, symbolic and validating, perhaps, of the broken links in my own family life. I write about Nathan’s music as a way to connect to this history but also because I’m not stupid: He’s a damn fine songwriter and musician.
I sent Nathan emails, when I was in my 30s; I didn’t hear back and then let it go. My mother was in touch with him from time to time. She fed my inquiries with anecdotes about visiting him and his wife in Tennessee. Then, in my early 40s I became more bold: I sent another email to Nathan, even left a voicemail on the number my mother gave to me, telling him that I was going to be visiting Chattanooga, TN where he lived. I was residing in Asheville, NC at the time, about three and a half hours away. I drove to Chattanooga with my boyfriend hoping that I’d hear from Nathan. There was no other reason for the trip. The Chattanooga Riverbend Festival was going on the weekend we visited. We walked around the festival checking out the bands. I kept hoping for and anticipating Nathan’s call. We returned to Asheville that evening having spent a day seeing the sights in Chattanooga but not my brother.
A year went by. I persisted. Coincidentally, just as Elissa Wald describes doing in her liner notes to Blood Like a River, I found Nathan on the internet. This time, I contacted him through his site. He wrote back. I listened to his music, his self-produced album In Tune, On Time, Not Dead and was blown away. “Wow, my brother is pretty cool!” I thought. I liked his music. (Another brother is also a musician who studied classical guitar for a year at Berklee before transferring to SUNY Purchase. Our late-grandmother played jazz piano – gorgeous music that would mesmerize me as a child.) I offered Nathan some help on his gruff-looking web site, because I knew a thing or two about technology. I cleaned that first site up a bit, and we managed to keep in touch.
I planned another visit to Chattanooga, one that followed on the heels of an invitation to stay with Nathan and his family. I met his wife, his daughter – my niece, and his son – my nephew. Nathan shared stories with me about his life and the years that passed between his birth, my birth, and our now meeting each other in our forties.
So, when Nathan sings, “The wind blew once and my mother was gone/But fortune has followed me my whole life long/Don’t think I don’t know it /I do” in “Fade Out,” the fourth track on Blood Like a River, I recognize how a twist of fate that could’ve been cruel was in fact a form of grace.
Of the twelve tracks on the album, “Blue Kentucky Gone (She Sang the Blue Kentucky Girl),” “Samadhi,” “Every Other Day,” and “Fade Out” particularly grab me in both songwriting and performance. As other reviewers have noted, “Blue Kentucky Gone” is masterfully composed in both its lilting melody and descriptive, yet sparse, lyrics. It tells an eloquent and heartbreaking story of a daughter giving respite to her father’s bleak existence in a Kentucky coal mining town through the tenderness of her song, specifically Emmylou Harris’ “Blue Kentucky Girl.” Nathan’s passionate delivery of the father’s perspective is so vivid and captivating that one would be hard-pressed to hear another singer do this song justice.
“Samadhi” and “Every Other Day” each speak to the mortality of our lives but also to the deep intimacy we have with everything that surrounds us, from a beloved whom we feel we’ve known forever to rain dropping to the ground. In “Samadhi” (the word “samadhi” refers to a particular state of awareness) the singer becomes one with these things around him – not only becoming, but wishing, each note sung being released like a meditative exhalation. When Nathan sings, “One day I /Will be someday gone /So tell me why /Is it taking me so long,” he seems to have emerged from his meditative state of samadhi into one of awareness of his own mortality.
“Every Other Day” plays like a love letter to Nathan’s wife but one that weaves around the fragile nature of our existence. “For there are only two days that matter/As life passes by/The day that/you’re born/And every other day that you die.” It is within that precarious existence that he conveys his love as the one solid thing to be counted on.
In “Fade Out” Nathan strums his guitar with a folk rhythm that suggest he’s about to tell us a ballad. However, as previously noted, when he sings in the first verse, “The wind blew once and my mother was gone/But fortune has followed me my whole life long/Don’t think I don’t know it/I do,” he sings here of his story and that is where this album became personal for me. The song’s chorus, “And all I ever wanted was you . . . “ hints at a primal longing even as “ . . . somebody loved me like I was her own.” Here, I am left to surmise who “you” is, but I am also content in not knowing the answer – if there is an answer at all.
Each song on the album contributes to the mood of Blood Like a River, shaping it’s theme into one of compassion and stillness. Nathan’s playing throughout is compelling as is the resonance in his vocals. According to Trespass Music, his artist management site, Blood Like a River recently came in at #9 for Top Albums and Songs with FolkDJ’s on Folkrado.org, and the album is also making headway in the Freeform Americana Charts. Nathan’s efforts on Blood Like a River deserve recognition for their brave songwriting, honest expression, and gorgeous compositions.
Preview tracks from Blood Like a River on iTunes Blood Like a River.