Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
It had been rough on all of their bodies, there's no doubt about it, but Nathaniel Rateliff, the main songwriter and leader of The Wheel, looked like he'd been in a prize fight or two the night before he came in for this session in the summer, with his eyes red and nearly swollen shut from the lack of sleep and consistent burning through nights as if his time was running out. It's not just the way that Rateliff, a native of Missouri wine country (as odd as that is to say) and a resident of Denver, Colorado these days, acts on the road when the behavior isn't just expected, but encouraged. It's how he thinks about his miniscule allotment of time and he ruminates on the lack of tenure that all of us are faced with here, working these potentially wasted aspirations and the hollowed out but booming and thundering heart of a man who knows that there's no way that his time will ever be enough, into his spectacularly defined and perceptive folk songs. He gives these drowsy-to-wailing songs a southern bent at times and at others he makes them feel as if they have been dropped off in the middle of a Minnesota corn field, bumped from the tailgate of a pickup truck that was driving wearily through the middle of a cold, white, winter's night on a deserted county road that's only been half-heartedly plowed clean. The songs that Rateliff finds himself writing, more times than not, are those that seek to find out if there is a payoff, if there can be a payoff and what exactly could this mystery payoff be if we do actually have a formidable resiliency and enough time to pull off the unthinkable - and in this case it's happiness. Or it's something as close to a happy ending as could be written up - maybe just an ending without all the balloons or jolly cheers and thumps on the back, maybe just little smiles, a lukewarm chest and not too many aches, to go with a family that loves you as much as you could ever expect them to. It might just be walking into the house and having a small number of people race at you with grins and excitement, ready to hug you - though that's just personally meaningful and yet that might be all there is and that's not half bad. It might just be that the time allowed could bring some of these outcomes, or maybe it's all too hopeful because age doesn't usually treat anyone with too much dignity and age and time have always been hissing enemies. It could be simply a woman that you met when you were younger, getting fatter with that woman and finding, in the mornings sometimes, that she still looks at you the same grateful way and you do the same. That's a happiness that seems to be striven for in Rateliff's songs, nothing fancy or complicated, just a couple of people who don't want to get rid of each other, who don't want to run away from anything and who are okay with the slow way that things are going. It's that meaningless gnawing away at us, of time and responsibility, that is so stressful and Rateliff gets this emotion, this internal struggle right every time. He lets the emotion have it with some choice monologues and with some exquisitely beautiful reflections of what it means to feel as if nothing's in control and things like prayers are just evaporating into thin air. No one's listening. You're on your own so try not to fuck it up too badly and if you do, don't make a scene. It seems to be the advice that comes in from the sidelines as Rateliff and his incredible band, The Wheel, stamp these sad and joyful songs with so much plaintive delirium. These are songs about dissolving men and varying degrees of uncertainty - of compassion for wanting to get this one chance right. It's about doubt and love and it's about the feeling of hopelessness that springs from both.