What comes after the blues? When you strip it all away and grieve so publicly on record, what’s the appropriate next step? For Nathaniel Rateliff, the answer is to restart your R&B backing band and plug it back into that electric energy. That’s precisely what he and The Night Sweats do on their third album, The Future.
The last time we heard from Rateliff, he had taken a step back from the supercharged soul of The Night Sweats and returned to his folk roots on the solo LP, And It’s Still Alright. The solo acoustic setting was a response to the turmoil Rateliff was experiencing in his life, dealing with both his then-recent divorce and the death of his friend, fellow musician Richard Swift. With his return to The Night Sweats, Rateliff has signalled that he’s ready to howl once again.
On the album’s opening title track, Rateliff sounds more country and more like Bob Dylan than he ever has before. The burly singer always had a voice that could rattle the walls, but here he fully lets loose and lets out harried howls are as unhinged as Rateliff has ever sounded on record. It’s a combative way to start an album, but damn if I don’t respect it.
From there, The Night Sweats reestablish their soulful groove on ‘Survivor’, which contains more than a few shades of ‘You Worry Me’, at least until Rateliff attacks the mic on the chorus. There’s a direct feeling of discontent within Rateliff’s voice through The Future; whether that’s lyrically moving through tough times or physically shouting his demons away, it’s hard to argue against the fact that Rateliff remains one of music’s most affecting voices.
‘Face Down in the Moment’ continues those feelings of discontent, focusing on the “strong current that can sweep you off your feet”. As The Future moves forward, the triumphant characters become more complex and harder to find. Instead, the album is populated with a more realistic, downtrodden cast of characters: people whose lives have passed them by, people who can’t tell if they’ve arrived or gotten lost along the way, people who lean on others who might not reciprocate. Even when Rateliff sings of love and support, like on ‘Love Me Till I’m Gone’ and ‘Baby I Got Your Number’, there’s still a black cloud of concern that hangs over it all.
Even if Rateliff isn’t as interested in putting on his best Otis Redding impression, you can hear The Night Sweats itching to get going. The swampy groove on ‘What If I’, while the moody ‘I’m On Your Side’ can’t help but get a bit of vibrancy with every saxophone blast that comes through the speakers. It’s appropriate that the band are signed to Stax Records because the remnants of The M.G.’s and the Bar-Keys are all over the backing band’s tight, country-fried soul. Because The Future is a darker record, The Night Sweats don’t get a lot of chances to explode into that joyous frenzy that they can conjure up, but on tracks like album closer ‘Love Don’t’, you can practically feel them ready to burst into party mode.
Truth be told, The Future isn’t as good of an album as the band’s killer 2015 self-titled debut, an album that seems to age like a fine wine with every passing year. There’s no standout single like ‘S.O.B.’, nothing that matches the barnstorming power of ‘Look It Here’ or ‘Trying So Hard Not To Know’, and nothing as tender as ‘Wasting Time’ or ‘Thank You’. But it certainly matches the power of 2018’s Tearing at the Seams, which found Rateliff blending his more fellow and frantic sides together without getting the best out of either. The Future dispenses with the twee folk, going back to that R&B drive that necessitates the power of a band like The Night Sweats.
The triumph of Rateliff over adversities is essential not just to his personal narrative but also to the music that he plays. There were inklings of that in both Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats and Tearing at the Seams, but it’s more front and centre on The Future. While it doesn’t always ascend to those delirious highs that he and the band are capable of, The Future does prove how essential Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats are to current popular music. Nobody is doing white boy soul at the same level they are, and with The Future, they prove that they can still hit those highs.