As with any musical project so boldly tackling the slow ebbing of life and the ultimate loss of a loved one, Nathaniel Bellows’ raw, gritty and soulful masterpiece eight song masterpiece Three is a tough, painful listen. But that’s as it’s intended, because as the brilliant contemporary folk singer/songwriter shares his wildly cathartic, poetic and metaphor rich reflections on his dad’s long illness and his ultimate passing, we have to go through the hell of hurt and loss to get a hint of healing and peace in the midst.
In this age of COVID-19, where fear, loss and wondering about our place in the universe is a constant nag on our day to day distractions, the album – his third project, covering three years of his dad’s life and his death in the third month of 2019 – almost seems prophetic. Like somehow Bellows knew we would need his haunting, soulful slow burning, alternately specific and abstract imagery to help us face our own fears and perhaps, the loss and loneliness we are facing like never before.
Although we might have to ask him the specific meaning behind each hard-hitting metaphor related to seafaring (most prominent in “Haul Me In”) and the spiritual payments life demands of us (“Split Lip,” “I’ve Learned”), the way he couches his imagery, narrative flow and driving acoustic guitar in the warm, inviting, old productions of Grammy winning genre veteran Malcolm Burn (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Daniel Lanois) allows us the time and space to contemplate – and perhaps find our own meaning in them.
Bellows self-produced his first two album, but felt that the personal nature of these songs needed the detailed touches and oversight of a seasoned pro. Burn responded quickly to the six demos the singer sent him, and the two recorded the eight tracks in Burn’s home studio in Kingston NY during the pandemic. The sparkling retro keyboard harmonies, haunting/dancing violin on “If Only” and bustling percussion on “Words Fail” powerfully underscore Bellows’ guttural emotions and whimsical cries out for a deeper understanding of the nature of all things.
While most of the songs naturally lend themselves to understated, largely unadorned balladry, the most hypnotic and infectious tunes are the more aggressive opening track (and lead single) “In the Wool” and the loping “If Only” – songs of movement meant to empower even as they help open the floodgates of our questioning and grieving the things like suffering and loss that we don’t fully understand.