These are songs of incredible texture and skill. Not least the dark blues of the aforementioned “….Prison” one of the albums most immediate tracks. Don’t make the mistake, though, of thinking this is Bell. It’s not. Nathan Bell, across this album, proves to be some kind of shapeshifter, a chameleon, and this is a maze of things.
“Right before we did the deed and elected an oligarch, PT Barnum-style scam artist, I started thinking it was time to collect some of the political songs I’d written over the years, and combine them with some of the new ones I’d been working on," Bell says. "I’ve always been resistant to slogans and catchphrases, so Traitorland is more an album of pointed stories about people affected by the callousness of the wealthy and the power brokers. Nowadays, they’re so disconnected from the working class—they’re even more cruel than Carnegie was. Paul Ryan—I don’t know how he sleeps at night. I don’t know how a man like Steve Bannon is allowed to spend a day near whoever’s in power. My family’s half Jewish, and I look at Bannon and think, ‘Great, we’re either gonna have to run or fight again.’ So the album comes from that.”
“There are people all around us who believe differently than we do,” Bell says. “Good people. And in the basics of their daily life, the political sign in their yard is no reflection on who they are to their neighbors. Over the last few years, we’ve forgotten this, and a certain level of humanity has disappeared. To me, the whole point of liberal politics is, we let people in even if they’ve made a mistake. I was out walking my dogs a few weeks ago, and I ran into one of my neighbors down the street, and she says, ‘Hey, I voted for Trump, and I'm scared shitless. Did you vote for Trump?’ Now that's a golden opportunity. I said, ‘No, I didn't vote for him. He scares the hell out of me, and he's got a Nazi working with him.’ So we stood there and talked for awhile, and I find out she's a fiscal conservative, she's a little bit socially conservative, but like a lot of people in the South, she's got six gay cousins she likes just fine. So we had a conversation, which is what we're supposed to do. Let the other side be exclusive, keep people out, and pretend everyone should be divided up into groups; at the end of the day, no matter how hard we fight, even if it means physical dissent, when the war is over, people are still people. It's how you avoid the Hutus and the Tutsis warring back and forth, chopping each other up with machetes. If someone comes to you and says, 'Look, I shouldn't have voted for assholes the last 12 years. How do we put our country back together and make sure everybody's protected?' then you've got to accept that. It's hard, but you've gotta look some assholes in the eye and accept that maybe they've changed. I can't forgive a fucking Nazi, I think—until I meet some guy who was a skinhead for 25 years, and spends the rest of his life working in the AIDS ward trying to atone for it. There's always some reason for you to doubt your certainty.”
Love > Fear captures the stark, unadorned directness of Bell’s solo acoustic performances. Many of the tracks were recorded live-in-the studio in front of a small audience. There’s no doubling and almost no overdubs—just a man with a harp around his neck and a guitar in his weathered hands, singing and playing his heart out. At times, the sound is earthy and optimistic, a silver glimmer breaking through the clouds above an Appalachian peak; other times, it’s sparse, haunting and distant, a warning flare erupting across the dusk. But no matter the track, it’s unvarnished and immediate, the songs given room to shine in all their expertly constructed glory, shot through with the grace & grit of the finest American prose.
“I felt like this record was my chance to use what I’ve been doing for a long time, what I feel most comfortable doing, and that’s telling stories,” Bell says, “giving people a chance to use their knowledge of others to feel hopeful. Sure, there’s some sad shit on there, but ultimately it’s a hopeful record. My big goal in life is to make it so much better to love people that, after a while, hating people seems like a lot of work. You only need one commandment, right? If you love everybody, then all the other commandments are unnecessary. I'm not a religious man at all. As a matter of fact, I'm completely anti-religion. But if I could give everybody just one commandment, it would be, love each other."
Tennessee songwriter Nathan Bell's fourth critically acclaimed album,Love>Fear (48 hours in traitorland), is now available in the United States.
Stream the album in its entirety at American Standard Time and find out why this collection of songs has cemented Bell's position as one of America's most literate and accomplished songwriters.
"Nathan Bell has collected the songs in this cycle to distance you from your own perspective, to help you let it go. You can’t argue with a well written song, much less with a character in dire straits. You can play politics, root for your team in the comfort of your home, but as soon as you experience the life of another person, it will change yours. Bell’s empathy isn’t for a lack of clarity about current events (in fact he’s hyper-aware), it’s a protest against the divide and conquer of American communities for capital gain. He doesn’t need to name the oppressor, or the solution; his somber, sober tales name your neighbors, your acquaintances, your family, your generation, who have always been the only ones you can turn to."
American Standard Time
June 30, 2017
Music has always served as the great communicator. Whether voices are raised in protest or unequaled joy, there is a sense that both difficult and inspiring ideas can pass freely through music without losing their desired perspectives. From '60s folk to late '80s/early '90s hip-hop, various strains of music have echoed with the struggles and victories of people who raised their voices just a little bit louder than the person next to them. And in our current climate of political and social unrest, those voices need to be louder than ever—and that's where Iowa-born/Chattanooga-based singer-songwriter Nathan Bell comes in.
At 57, his persuasive voice is a combination of hardened experience and weary acknowledgment, a scathing thing that pierces the foolishness and blind obedience that he sees as inherent to the current state of American politics. He's quite free with his vicious indictments of Donald Trump's presidency, but he possesses a wit and carefree swagger that keep his sentiments from feeling labored or false. His songs feel stripped of their age, aching rhythms built from a specific political venom and emotional resonance.
He's currently gearing up for the release of his new record, "LOVE>FEAR (48 Hours in Traitorland)," due out June 30 via Stone Barn Records. Composed of a devastating Americana-hued honesty, the record roars with the fury of a man trying to shake sense into those without an awareness of their surroundings. You can hear this frustration threaded throughout his latest single, "Traitorland (Rules for Living In)," and he spares no public official in his condemnation of what he sees as the dismantling of the fundamental ideals upon which our government is based.
Using just a guitar and his world-worn voice, Bell builds a simple but powerful momentum that acts as our entry point into a stark and shadowy landscape of Americana gone dark. He bends the strings and twists a series of folk-oriented melodies to evoke the taut nervousness that he feels spreading out over the country. This song exposes his own anxiety and offers a wry, forceful commentary on the consequences of ineptitude and inexperience.
Joshua Pickard- The Local
Bell had already recorded some incisive songs that portrayed working class Americans who were effectively disenfranchised, no matter who they voted for. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss as The Who said. The farcical election of a millionaire who pretended to be a man of the people not only enraged him but recalled dark times when despots utilised populist discontent to gain power and then turned against those very same people. Bell himself comes from a line which su ered pogroms in Europe within living memory and so he set upon this album, a call to arms of sort. These are protest songs that are not so much “ nger pointing” (as Dylan dismissed his competitors back in the sixties) as setting out a topography of those whose life’s were and are a struggle and who were beguiled by the promise of making America (and them) great again. Recorded in two days in January Bell, accompanied only by his guitar and harmonica, is not aping Phil Ochs in demanding an impeachment, instead he’s standing in solidarity with those who have had indignities heaped upon them. His anger and bile is reserved for those in power whose venality compels them to set aside any quibbles as they stand behind the narcissistic slobberings of the man who diminishes not only the position he was elected to but also the country he is supposed to serve. As long as they still have a snout in the trough they’ll ignore his tweets, his misogyny and his rampant disdain for the pillars of American justice. They are the traitors.
Over the course of eleven songs Bell demonstrates that he’s a powerful performer. His guitar and harmonica allied with his fine grained voice place the album alongside acoustic classics such as Springsteen’s Tom Joad and Earle’s Train a Comin’, there’s a real sense of passion rising from the songs. His writing encapsulates the American dream gone wrong as experienced by real folk with the opening The Big Old American Dream a perfect example. Here Bell parades in a series of short vignettes several sorry tales, a transgendered rodeo clown, a man driven to robbery to pay for medicine, a farmer whose land is repossessed by the bank. With its mournful harp and delicate guitar picking it’s up there with the likes of Guy Clark and a perfect introduction to the album. Bell has stories to tell throughout. One of the protagonists in Hard Weather can’t drink the water because it’s poisoned, The Long Way Down‘s character is “on the long slide to the bottom... sinking like a stone” while So Damn Pretty is an astute insight into the fate of women condemned to be praised for their looks rather than their achievements. He weighs into the rape and pillage of the environment by coal companies on Coal Black Water and on MIA unveils the plight of returning war veterans. The sense of displacement and trauma of the veterans is heard again on the closing Goodbye Brushy Mountain where Bell recounts the tale of a three time loser incarcerated for so long in the notorious Tennessee prison and so institutionalised that he fears the demolition of what he has come to call home sweet home.
In all of these songs there’s a tremendous sense of empathy with Bell inhabiting the lives of these outcasts. As he has said in an interview elsewhere, “If you’re gonna be a teller of stories, you better do it with love and honesty” and for sure there’s a great deal of love here and in a way he has completed his proposed album of love songs and as the album title says love is greater than fear. However Bell isn’t content to chronicle the tales of the dispossessed and he o ers a de ant manifesto on What Did You Do Today and on Traitorland (Rules For Living In Traitorland) challenging folk to stand up and be counted. Finally, he has an anthem of sorts in the powerful Raise Your Fist which he delivers with the soul and grit of a Southern civil rights call to arms. Inspired by the courageous Olympian sprinters who in 1968 enraged the American establishment with their black power salute on the winners’ podium it is angry and proud and as witnessed by this writer when Bell sang it live back in January is certainly rabble rousing.
Love > Fear (48 hours in traitorland) is an important album with Bell adding to the budding protest against the populist movements that threaten us all. It’s an aural equivalent to Grapes Of Wrath, Sullivan’s Travels, Michael Moore’s Roger & Me and even Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier. It sounds great but more importantly it impels the listener to stand up and be counted.