Nathaniel Bellows’ latest album Three feels like the end of a long, musical journey. And it’s not for everyone. Wide audiences aren’t necessarily accustomed to the album’s deliberately slow-paced, acoustic vibe, Bellows’ decidedly uncharismatic yet evocative vocal tones, or the fact each song in effect is something of a story and something of a rumination — in effect, something that makes you think. But for those who worship at the altar of indie, alternative, and the underground musical genres, it’s cult heaven.
Many artists have tried to mimic the past, rarely even providing a half-decent replica of Waits, or Dylan, or Young. Bellows, perhaps courtesy of his background in literature, walks the fine line between inspiration and from said inspiration innovation. While his approach has been fine-tuned many times before, Bellows adds originality to the formula by way of his naked, unabashed vulnerability that in no way compromises an overarching sense of his masculine power. The result is something that feels genuinely authentic, genuinely lived. The lyrics contain inklings of worldly sardonicism, but never actually graduate to the forced cynicism many modern artists mistake for insight.
Part of what makes Bellows authentic is the music seeming to come from a deeply personal place. He has been open about what the inspiration for both Three and his previous efforts, The Old Illusions and Swan and Wolf respectively, entail — namely his coping with the three years a family member wrestled with the debilitating effects of a terminal disease. In many ways, this adds a somber awareness to the already introspective and, at times dark and even a little dangerous, musical compositions on each album. But while Wolf and Illusions sported a more visible hostility in their sound, Bellows tones down such blips in Three.
While he doesn’t shy away from painting stark, gritty pictures, he seems more concerned with a Malick-like fixation on magnifying pretty little details. This shows in songs such as ‘In the Wool’, ‘I Once Did’, and ‘Move Away’. ‘In the Wool’ in particular has many things to highlight as examples of this, a particular stanza going Come make me from a strand into a string, something made for covering. It’s Bellows’ fixation on encompassing these sorts of details that makes Three automatically sport a more innocent, relaxed aura. There’s a sense of finality to it in comparison to the predecessors, and with that finality even maybe a sense of peace.
Part of Bellows’ overall craft is his ability to make things intensely personal, while still allowing for audience interpretation. It’s part of what catapulted him as an author and poet to critical acclaim and widespread success, his work since appearing in distinguished collections such as the Paris Review and The Best American Short Stories. While he writes from a place of lived-in hardship and experience, his stories also entail a simplicity of everyday fears, hopes, and events. The result is something that is the best of both worlds: work that is inherently deep because of thematic material, while also philosophizing about and magnifying everyday events to epic scale. The same goes for his music.