Nathan Bell: Love > Fear (48 Hours in Traitorland)
Stone Barn Records – 30 June 2017
There will doubtless be many more albums to come in the wake of Trump’s election, but few are likely to be as powerful or impassioned as Nathan Bell’s Love>Fear (48 hours in traitorland). Fuelled by anger and outrage at what had happened, and with a still raw family heritage of those who had suffered from tyranny in Europe, he crafted this call to arms in response to those who make promises they have no intention of keeping and those whose self-interest see them stand silent, a voice for those who end up the victims of the injustice and indignities they promulgate. This is the state of the nation as a traitorland to itself.
Armed with just guitar and harmonica, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with Dylan, Springsteen or Prine, the latter particularly in evidence on the album opener, The Big Old American Dream, three sketches of characters living under the hammer out on the edge, not the life they expected; a female 400lb vet and a male attorney turned transgendered rodeo clown, a first generation farmer who loses his land to the bank, a man sent to prison when forced to turn to robbery to pay for the medicine he needed.
It’s understandable that the next track might be titled Raise Your Fist. Dedicated to the Tommie Smith, John Carlos (from the US) and Peter Norman (from Australia), the Olympic sprinters who, has a sign of protest, wore the patch for the Olympic Project for Human Rights and (Smith & Carlos) gave the black power salute from the winners podium in 1968. It’s a fingerpicked bluesy anthem of defiance in the face of hard times that evokes the ghosts of those who came before, crossing the waters to build a life in a new land, serving reminder that “Street by street, row by row, we stand on the bodies that lie below” and of the duty owed them to fight for the dream they carried.
Inevitably, it’s not easy. Sung in a dry, cracked voice with a wailing harmonica, Hard Weather conjures images of decaying towns and broken lives hit by the new depression (“The sign on the screen said business is poor. Anyone who wants this place, the keys are inside the door”), its line how “We can’t drink the water ‘round here. They gave us the poison, took all the money” guessingly a fracking reference.
In the strummed weary and resigned The Long Way Down with its impassioned chorus, the narrator is “on the long slide to the bottom…a dead man walking home”, as Bell bleakly notes “Money isn’t everything, it just buys a little hope ‘til one day you find you’re hanging at the end of your own rope.”
Recalling how evil triumphs when good men stand by and do nothing, What Did You Do Today? is a rallying cry to these who just sit and complain, waiting for things to get better and blame everyone else for not doing anything about it as he asks:
Did you stop on the side of the road for a minute
By a busted old Buick with a family in it
Were you late to work and didn’t even care at all
Or did you walk down the street with a kid on your shoulder
Showin’ him who he’d be when he got older
For just a second, did you feel like the king of it all?
So you can get up tomorrow morning and stand for something and you might be happy.
Fingerpicked and understatedly delivered, Traitorland (rules for living in) is the centrepiece, a guide to resistance (“Don’t let them tell you what to read. Don’t let them tell you what to say. Don’t let them tell you who to love. Don’t let them tell you who to save. Don’t let them tell you where to live. Don’t let them tell you who to fear. Don’t let them tell you anything at all. Don’t believe a single thing you hear”) and a pointed reminder that “No wall can ever stand against all this love.”
The remaining five tracks are all live recordings, kicking off with Coal Black Water, a bluesy attack on the pollution and destruction to the environment caused by the coal companies, followed in equally potent protest force with MIA, a decidedly Springsteenesque lament for the troubles of veterans who return home only to become ‘missing in America’ and end up “Praying to God for a highway sign that said this way back to Vietnam.”
A similar theme of emotional, spiritual and psychological displacement can be found on Goodbye Brushy Mountain, the story of a three-time loser who found it easier to live in prison than in the world and, after spending his life incarcerated in the titular Tennessee State Penitentiary, has become so institutionalised that the closure of what has become his home fills him with fear.
On a different note, one of the album’s many highlights is So Damn Pretty, a simple but piercingly moving drawled spoken narrative about Emma, who, like so many women, is seen only for her looks and not her intellect or achievements in her fight for equality and that “they could never see that there was more to me than just so damn pretty.”
On the penultimate track, One Man Walking, Bell becomes Emma, he becomes that farmer, that veteran, that prisoner, the embodiment of all those bruised and broken by America, but whose ghosts won’t go quietly and whose stories live on to hopefully open the eyes of those who look the other way and perhaps stir the conscience to action, as he sings:
It means everything when you don’t turn away
Sometimes you see what you don’t want to see
Sometimes a dollar buys you where you want to be
Sometimes you get exactly what you get for free
And sometimes you just get me
You can close your eyes
But I won’t go away
It’s been likened to a musical equivalent of The Grapes of Wrath and, alongside Joe Purdy’s 2016 release, Who Will Be Next? it’s unquestionably one of the most important blue collar protest albums of our time, one which looks contemporary America unflinchingly in the eye and demands its listeners do the same. Bell says “There’s no wall of heroes for the ordinary man”, but if there were his name would be inscribed at the top.
Photo Credit: Richard Duby