Richard Swift liked what he was hearing when Nathaniel Rateliff brought him an idea that would grow into the latter's first solo record since 2013. "Oh, I can’t wait to work on that," Swift told him. "You can’t be too Nilsson, man."
Rateliff was in the midst of working with his band, the Night Sweats, on the follow-up to their 2015 self-titled debut album when Swift, his producer, heard the plucking, bittersweet reflection on a disintegrating relationship called “All or Nothing,” a song he didn’t intend to perform with the band.
“I was really excited about the progression and this whole other type of guitar playing that I was learning and figuring out,” Rateliff remembers, noting Swift’s comparison to the “Everybody’s Talkin’” singer and chuckling a little. “I was like, ‘That’s kind of what I want to do! Let’s approach making a record the way you make Damien Jurado records, but with a weird Nilsson twist to it.'”
By that point, Rateliff and the Night Sweats were playing 200 shows a year to crowds escalating in size, and bringing down the house every night with “S.O.B.,” the hooting, hollering single that eventually topped Billboard's Adult Alternative Songs chart, went Platinum and made the neo-soul ensemble land-a-Kia-commercial level famous. They had sat down with Swift, who produced their first record, to craft a follow-up to further hone their rambunctious, joyful sound with Rateliff’s bellow at the center of it.
That album, Tearing at the Seams, came out in 2018 and reached No. 11 on the Billboard 200, their highest charting effort to date. But in between those songs, Rateliff had others — older ones that didn’t make sense for the first Night Sweats album, notes and verses he jotted down to save for later — that he wanted to explore. Throughout this process, he was facing upheaval in his personal life as his marriage was ending, but he couldn’t bring himself to write about it with the Night Sweats or even discuss it openly at the time.
“I didn’t feel like I could safely talk about what I was going through,” he says, “Which is very hard for me to do, because I’m a wear-everything-on-my-sleeve kind of guy.”
The months that followed gave Rateliff and Swift, along with co-producers James Barone and Patrick Meese, the chance to dig into the material Rateliff had briefly sidelined, as they worked at National Freedom, Swift’s home studio in Cottage Grove, Ore.
Tragedy struck when Swift — who also played bass in the Black Keys when he wasn’t producing Rateliff, Guster, Jurado and more — died in July 2018 at age 41, following complications stemming from his addiction to alcohol. The schism Rateliff had recently lived through, along with the grind of the Night Sweats and the demands they now faced with their growing fame, was further compounded by the sudden and devastating loss of his friend and collaborator. And It’s Still Alright then became a very different album in a single brutal turn — but Rateliff, Barone and Meese continued on at National Freedom to finish what they’d started with Swift.
“I thought the best way to do that was to go back to his place and have that energy be a part of the record,” he says. “We only had eight days at Richard’s studio. In some ways, it was really cathartic; in some ways, there wasn’t really any time to think or feel about those things, either. We just kind of plowed through our time there, and then at the end, it was like, ‘It’s kind of heavy to be there and be there without Richard.’ I guess that’s the point of the whole record, though — acknowledging the heaviness of all of that and moving forward and still finding joy. That’s the theme.”
For longtime fans of Rateliff, And It’s Still Alright sounds like a return to form — at first. The brassy flourishes of the Night Sweats and his maniacal dance moves give way to hushed harmonies, somber meditations on loss and love, and the occasional tortured roar set to the steel of his guitar strings. Long before “S.O.B.,” Rateliff was an indie demigod of sorts in Denver: His rock band, Born in the Flood, built a faithful following in the early '00s, and he shifted a solo career of a folk-leaning persuasion near the close of that decade when he started writing material under Nathaniel Rateliff and the Wheel. “The Wheel” fell off with the release of In Memory of Loss, his 2010 solo debut; another album, Falling Faster Than You Can Run, followed in 2013.
To say And It’s Still Alright picks up where Rateliff left off with his troubadour tendencies isn’t quite accurate: He never stopped writing, even when the Night Sweats dominated his schedule and his output for the better part of the decade. And it’s not like the man behind the songs changed his approach to them just because he dropped the guitar and focused on the microphone.
“The delivery is different, but the intention is the same,” says Rateliff of his first post-Night Sweats solo effort. “To me they’re all characters of myself; the Night Sweats guy is certainly one of my characters. This is just another face of myself. I like to think of it as not a full departure from the early days of the singer songwriter in me, but I’ve certainly taken all the stuff I’ve learned from the Night Sweats — recording, writing and even playing 200 shows a year. That really changes you, in a certain way, as a performer and a player and a writer.”
These changes and their cost seep into his lyrics now — he sings of how “for a moment I could wait to see it fall apart/ every empty bed in every city I’ve been” in “Time Stands” — but regardless of instrumentation and genre, Rateliff’s reflex to write through painful mysteries remains the same. “Rush On,” the closing track, is a tribute to Swift, a sorrowful lullabye with a message that extends beyond their bond and the boisterous music that brought them together.
“I’m talking directly to Richard and trying to let him know that we shared the same burden,” he says. “Most of us do as a part of our human experience, this unexplainable brokenness, but it’s not something we share with each other. I think that can be dangerous. I think we need to at least have a conversation and allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to admit we have those things inside of us so that the situation with Richard doesn’t happen. Those things we all have and all experience, it is singularly your experience, but it’s a part of our human experience and part of our growth. When it looks like it’s yours, it’s shattering and you feel so alone in that pain.”
This is the message — strength in empathy, free of judgment — that Rateliff hopes to leave with those who come to see him on his (largely sold-out) solo spring tour, which kicks off on March 3 in Minneapolis. “I hope they feel like it’s a good show and that it was worth their money,” he jokes. “In the greater sense, I hope they hear that willingness to be vulnerable, to question yourself and where you’re at and be able to share that with the people around you.”