The Old Illusions (2016)
It Never Ends (with Timo Andres) (album extra)
Praise for The Old Illusions
Nathaniel Bellows is an author, visual artist, poet and musician. While this New York-based artist might be considered something of a Renaissance man, the delivery of his debut album, The Old Illusions, might have me leaning toward musician just a little bit harder. Truthfully, all of those other creative outlets are felt as influences on this record rendering it to sound more like a continuation of an artistic journey rather than the start of a musical career. What’s very clear here is that Bellows’ acclaim in other arenas translates beautifully to his music.
The Old Illusions is a very intimate, earnest album. Bellows’ vocals are piercing, and very distinct; perhaps the best comparison would be that of Marcus Mumford, but more refined. That’s not to say this lacks in any emotional capacity, for it’s the intensity of Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen that lives within Bellows’ ability to tell a story and focus squarely on the lyrics. And it really is the vocal performance here that stands out; Bellows bears the unmistakable mark of a haunted, introspective artist. This is the perfect tool to enhance the lyrical, poetic and vivid imagery of the lyrical content.
Lead track “Oh, Now” is a harbinger for what’s to come on the rest of the record, but it’s also a standout among a strong eight-track effort. Everything about this song is perfection; Bellows’ simple, effective vocal performance belies the complexity and overall depth of the track. It’s one you definitely go back to over and over again, and stands up on its own as a great introduction to the artistry Bellows aims to achieve. “The Reason” is another track that finds Bellows articulating flawlessly and employing heavenly backing vocals to elevate the lyrics to new heights. “Modern Days” also stands out amongst the pack of poetry with its great guitar work and pitch-perfect vocals.
The Old Illusions is a perfect title for this record; Bellows is indeed a throwback and progressive all at once. This isn’t a showy or flashy album, but it is full of imaginative vibrance. A complex and interesting songwriter, Bellows has fashioned an album that requires more than a single listening to appreciate everything happening in the arrangements and lyrics. He may not choose to focus on music in the future, but Nathaniel Bellows has certainly captured his artistic spirit with The Old Illusions.
-Heidi Drockelman, Indie Music
Nathaniel Bellows’ The Old Illusions (Harmon Blunt Music) casts this acclaimed poet and librettist in a singer-songwriter mode reminiscent of Greg Brown. His lush, warm baritone and acoustic guitar are balanced precariously on arrangements full of spiderweb shadows and glittering edges.
The dark thrum running through the veins of Bellows’ songs is questioning. Vocals swirl and wrench around his center of gravity, rising and falling, wordless notes and lines congealing into words, most notably an echoing male voice flatly repeating the word “lie,” pulling the narrative down from certainty to doubt. Instruments appear, throw gleaming daggers that shatter into texture, and disappear. “The Reason,” with its suspended piano and circling, surging guitar, orbits choruses tied together by alliteration and assonance, underlining the struggle. Bellows’ begged question, “Did somebody somewhere just use my name in the way one would say ‘I now know me?’” turns into a growl when it changes to, “Could somebody somewhere just soothe my brain? The thundering thoughts and the silence.” On “What Would You Do,” Bellows peels apart a small town scandal like an onion, starting with the finding of two corpses, slipping between the heads of various characters and the concrete detail of the town. Along the way, he talks about regret as poison and the impossibility of finding one’s way home.
Even in the heart of the frustration breathing through these songs, there’s a wild delight in the sensual quality of language. In closer “The Calm,” Bellows cartwheels through lines like, “In the calm and the psalm and the salt that’s thrown over the shoulder of the saddest of soldiers who’s carving a doll from the soap in the stall of his horse.” The Old Illusions is a moving record that reconstructs the past through what was handed down and, more, what we still tell ourselves. There isn’t a wasted note, inflection, or moment here. Indeed, there is no time for showy virtuosity when there’s so much to say.
- Richard Sanford, The Agit Reader
Nathaniel Bellows’ road to releasing “The Old Illusions” is a long and winding one, and you can hear it throughout the album which was released last month. A poet, novelist and visual artist, Nathaniel had hidden his songs away until another artist heard them and spurred him on to record them. The old in the title, refers in many ways to the wisdom these songs have picked up over the time they’ve been cultivated.
Take the opener “Oh, Now” which showcases Bellow’s angular and raspy tones over a warm but weary guitar. It feels home made and indie fresh but there’s a subtle horn arrangement playing underneath that embellishes the song perfectly and in a surprisingly stirring way. The acoustic guitar is central to the album and “Modern Days” showcases the finger style, the bedroom recording style where you can hear movement in the room and the honesty that the melody and lyrics provide. It’s quite direct because of the way the main vocal is recorded without any production at all. However Nathaniel’s voice provides all the additional melodies and soundscapes behind the guitar and sometimes it sounds otherwordly. It draws you into the song though and is a great artistic decision.
“At Sea” adds in some flute as the track takes a more folk twist. It sounds timeless and beautiful. The flutes and guitar interplay in a way that makes the track feel fluid and the rousing chorus is a folk treat. “Reel” is more brooding like a post battle lament. Delicate and achingly well paced, this works perfectly with “Who Made It So” that uses guitar feedback to softly fade in and out behind the main melody to perfect effect while Nathaniel begs us to “leave the bloodied man be”.
“The Reason” brings in piano for the first time and female backing vocals to give the track a brighter presence. It’s the closest to a full production the album gets but it shows just how solid the whole thing is, when you don’t even realise you’ve been listening to such a minimal sound palette. “What Would You Do” is the mystical speedy track. The chord structure has a heady dizziness and that’s brought out with the backing vocals that feel part choir and part like they are channelling a space orchestra. It’s such a magical effect that when it’s paired with such a great melody, it’s an instant win – especially with great lyrics too. The album closes with “The Calm” which is a gorgeous icy track with a cautionary tale “if you wait a moment longer, then its gone”.
Unconventional low fi recording and years of finesse have worked a treat on “The Old Illusions”. There is a warm through line that channels through these songs. Nathaniel’s voice may sound like it’s recorded in a vacuum but it also gives it s a unique olden sound which when mixed with the homemade recordings gives it added depth and flavour. Folk fans – your first essential album of 2016 is here.
Recommended track: What Would You Do
- Simon Smith, Higher Plain Music (UK)
Nathaniel Bellows is what you could call a renaissance man. He is already a well-respected poet, visual artist, lyricist, and now musician.
‘The Old Illusions’ is an earnest album built around childhood memories and what it is like to reflect upon these or shuck them off during adulthood. Bellows employs a minimal approach to song writing. In the main, these solemn ballads are based around acoustic guitar, piano, flute, backing vocals and the deep voice of Bellows. The style is not dissimilar to early Leonard Cohen, both in the sparseness of instrumentation, and in the poetic style and content. The simplistic nature of the composition works well with the poet’s lyrical style, allowing the skeletal rhythm of the words to show healthily through a lean body of guitar and atmosphere.
The opening track, ‘Oh, now’ starts with swift finger plucking, “All I said was lead the way and she forgave my old allegiance.” This is at once opaque and transparent, hinting at a very real relationship that is not easy to unpick. Bellows has a mature voice; the use of language is indicative of a soul that still sees romance in life, but as a complexity that describes the impossibility to fully comprehend existence, rather than an ideal to strive for.
‘Modern Days’ follows, which is also strong. The percussive guitar is a structure on which to build the story and the chorus is intriguing, positive and realistic “Can we say that we’ll all be forgiven one day coming soon? Does it follow to say that tomorrow is half-way in the mood? Can this extend to the end, or is that too sad to do?”
The next two songs are both based on the sea. Bellows grew up on the New England coast, so this makes sense given the album’s theme. ‘At Sea’ is perhaps the most Cohen-esque track. This features flute panning across speakers to create a space of magic, sublime and unknowing. ‘Reel’ is an angrier message, it finishes with “and to them it’s all truth, these lies to you,” perhaps suggesting a certain naivety on behalf of the song’s intended listener.
‘Who Made it So’ has the added dimension of another instrument (a sitar, harmonium, or possibly effects pedals). The sound judders and shudders through this song, stretching time and shattering into broken chords.
‘The Reason’ is fully realised, starting with a wash of female voices swathing gentle arpeggios. The vocals come in, “And the common key was C when the cloud carved out me.” The poetry is dense, but it seems likely that there has been a breakdown of some kind. The piano and electric guitar add to this mysterious composition.
‘What Would You Do’ is about being haunted by a religious upbringing. It is enveloped with ghostly angelic voices floating through the music that threaten to invade the strong, clear voice. ‘The Calm’ finishes the album with a story about a missing person, perhaps a child. There is a harp like instrument which shimmers over the surface. The chorus kind of falls out of the centre; suddenly what has been so clean is muddied and hard to hear.
‘The Old Illusions’ is an impressive debut. The only criticism would be that the composition, pace, shape, and atmosphere are quite similar from song to song. With the subject matter being quite down, this makes it hard to listen to in one sitting. However, if this sounds like the kind of music and mood you are striving to listen to, it will fulfil your curiosity.
- Frasia Dunn, GigSoup (UK)