A new project doesn’t necessarily encourage a full-on reckoning that wreaks havoc on your body and soul, but that’s what Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats conjure up, night in and night out. A typical show for Rateliff and company involves strident brass and the kind of twisting and shouting that’s just as at home on yesteryear’s dance floor as it is in the middle of a rapturous sermon. Rateliff is a bellower, a man who isn’t afraid to tackle stanzas that cut across his vocal cords like a skein of rusty barbed wire. He may be dancing, but there’s a really, really good chance his throat, and his feelings, are getting ripped to shreds in the process.
This intensity lends itself to the modern soul he and the Night Sweats are preaching, but this jubilant, boisterous, gimlet-eyed endeavor he’s fronting is foreign territory for Rateliff’s fans — and that’s part of the challenge he and the band face in the weeks leading up to the release of their self-titled debut album, out August 21. The red-faced, clapping-and-two-stepping maniac who howls his way through crowd favorite “S.O.B.” or the single “I Need Never Get Old” with the Night Sweats wasn’t always a full-time screamer. Since 2007, Rateliff has traveled with an acoustic guitar in tow, either solo or with various iterations of a band that first began playing out as Nathaniel Rateliff and the Wheel. The kind of folk he specializes in is that of a merciless ilk, where broken romances, guilty consciences, and seemingly irreconcilable differences are worked out one paradoxically harrowing and gorgeous phrase at a time. “Still Trying,” the leadoff track from 2013’s Falling Faster Than You Can Run, is a distillation of this, a song that embraces the demure melody of a lullaby while hurling lines out there like “If you’re rolling in it long enough, your shit don’t even smell.” The Night Sweats can be just as brutal with their delivery, but the stylistic shake-up may take fans by surprise, and Rateliff is prepared for that.
“With the other project, at least I know I have a fan base,” says Rateliff. “Big or little, it’s still a fan base. I know how to perform to them, and know what my job is in that territory. Sometimes you have to play the hits even if you don’t like it. With this project, it’s brand-new, so there’s still a question of whether people will react well or not. It may belly-flop, and that can happen, so you just never know how things are going to work out. Really, it’s like starting over in some ways, which is the difference. I’m just going to work as hard as I can and play the best shows that we can.”
When asked about the motivation behind this soulful departure — or detour, really, as he hasn’t stopped writing folk-tinged songs — Rateliff is firm: Hozier may be huge right now, and “blue-eyed soul” is a genre as commonly known as rock and r&b thanks to talents like Adele and Sam Smith, but Night Sweats material was in the works before the sounds of Muscle Shoals, Motown, and Stax had once again come into vogue.
“I’ve been rushing to try and get this stuff out since 2013, because I didn’t want to appear as though I was jumping on a bandwagon,” he says. He mentions that this comes up a lot. “Unfortunately, it may come off that way. I’m sure there’s going to be people who don’t like this new project who were fans before. That’s just the way it works. We’re just trying to play the best shows we can and work our asses off. I think it’s cool that there’s a resurgence of soul music; my timing’s just bad, is all.” He laughs. “Somebody asked me earlier today about why I make this kind of music, and I was like, ‘I don’t know — go to any bar or restaurant and put an old Sam Cooke or Otis Redding record on and people will sing along.’ I still feel like it’s me; the subject matter of the music is the same, with just slightly different rhythms.”
And there’s the perk for fans of Rateliff both old and new: Lyrically, he’s as bold, brazen, and unapologetic as ever, the lines facilitated by instrumentation that achieves the opposite emotional effect, in all its buoyancy and brightness. That same tortured melancholy that hit the ear so sweetly through his solo stuff is still simmering in the music of the Night Sweats; it’s just taking the high-octane route instead of one that’s sweet, lilting, and gut-wrenching in its own right.
“Emotionally it’s similar because the content of the songs is the same,” he says. “I can walk out onstage and be all ho-hum and sit on a stool and perform by myself or with a band, but this band requires a little more effort on my part….It’s been a little weird, because sometimes there’s a slight transition from one thing to another where I have to put on my sad face or amp up and get ready to dance. It’s a little different, but I’m adjusting to it. There’s a slight learning curve.”
He’s handling it with aplomb so far, as you’d never know the Night Sweats haven’t been plowing full speed ahead in this direction all along with Rateliff at the helm. Rateliff doesn’t have a signature move yet — “It’s a lot of weird footwork, I can’t really explain it!” he insists when asked to describe his dancing — but over the course of the next eighteen months, he’s sure to find one as the record, which bears the Stax imprint, only gets better with age. When we’ll get another Rateliff record — solo, folk, or otherwise — remains to be seen, but in the meantime he’ll kick the stool aside and dance until he knocks the mic over or sweats until he’s soaking through his rolled-up sleeves. It’s throat-searing, heart-wrenching work, but somebody’s gotta sing it.
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats play the Box on June 24. Their self-titled debut album is out via Stax Records on August 21.