Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
The black sea and the angry sea are one and the same in Nicole Atkins' dictionary. They are both merciless and just waiting for you to drown in them, receiving your struggling body, those thrashes and a head that's filling up with alarms and panic. They wait because, for the most part, drowning inside their graces is what most people are best at doing in one of those seas. Atkins puts the reference to that almost boundless, ruthless, and controlling black sea within the confines of her band's name. It's always there and it shapes the angles and the rough edges, or it just aggravates the rough edges a little bit, positions them to be more noticeable from a distance. A nod to the black sea isn't necessarily a nautical theme, but more of a take on the turbulence of humanity, or more specifically, the patchy times that two people often cannot escape. It is without these two pawns cooperation that waves as dark as a whale's gullet attempt to and sometimes do break their vessels into splinters with one or two solid thwacks. Nicole Atkins, the Brooklyn singer and songwriter who was in Rock Island the afternoon of a show in nearby Iowa City opening for the Avett Brothers, is in touch with these kinds of intrusions on calm, noting the stingers and the violence of nothing more than waters and winds. She applies this metaphorical take on one of the earth's great masses and likens them to what she's going through in any romantic struggles and skillfully applying them to the imaged struggles that others she knows must also be going through. It's not really the idea that nothing lasts, it's the idea that nothing can possibly stay the same in Atkins' songs as those involved strain themselves to the points of pain and beyond. They get tossed and thrown and when they wash up on shore with some of that less tough black water, they take an inventory of what's still attached and what's gone missing, sucked back into the water, where the battle originated. Out of breath and disoriented, it's natural for Atkins' characters to reflect almost immediately and begin thinking, "What happened?" Somehow, they form thoughts such as, "We broke the diamond with our bitter words," and we're taken to this articulate way of hearing mental and emotional devastation - in its own words. She rings out a boozy-sounding scene that flows melodiously in the beginning seconds like a Jeff Lynne/Electric Light Orchestra number with "Hotel Plaster," a song that Atkins says is advice to an ex and the sum of that "awful feeling of growing apart while touring." We see a man quietly getting to bed - trying not to shake the change out of his pocket to loudly, with a new lover already asleep in the bed, sure to disapprove of the hour and the disturbance should some quarters and dimes get wild and fall to the wood like shots. Atkins sings - from the prisons of hotel plaster, "My tears can learn to play the violin, but that might not bring you back/At least we'd have a pretty soundtrack." She's always able to find pretty way to see the spectacular colors of a sunset and not just the ensuing darkness, even suggesting in "Heavy Boots," "I will take the hurtful words and swallow them with courage/They are no match for me/And what I wouldn't do to wear your heavy boots." She finds ways to woo us with and worry us about what lies ahead, the ways that the brakes can be applied so suddenly and mash our faces into the glass, but maybe still leave us fondly remembering how we got there.