Album Review: N. Sherman – This Side of the Grave
There are people who write songs and there are people who tell stories with songs. Nathanael Sherman is the latter of the two and we, fans, are the better for it. His release This Side of the Grave is an absolute testament to his ability to write fantastic stories woven together with crisp melodies and sincere vocals. This is a really good album for fans of melodic singer songwriters along the lines of Nathan Reich or Jeff Pianki.
The opening track is about a drunk man and the pain he carries. It’s the kind of story that makes you think differently about the “common” people you interact with. It also gives our ears a taste of Sherman’s upper register. The song a steady and substantive feel to it, setting the stage for the rest of the album nicely.
“Brother, Mother, Father,” has a fascinating layer of spiritual language. Sherman’s sense of family (that’s maybe more than earthly family) comes across with subtle vocals and minimalist acoustic guitar. The lyrics make the song, though, including this gem:
Our Father’s grace brings exemption
And from his hand comes new creation
All the weary and forlorn
All the broken and the torn
Come and drink, taste and see
The song “Our Distance Is Not Known” is a bit more mysterious. Sherman’s phrasing and acoustic guitar fingerpicking work together nicely for a relaxing-yet-engaging feel. It’s the kind of song you’d expect to hear as you read a thoughtful essay. It’s about having the will to love and to live well. It’s challenging in an understated existential way.
“Unsafe” is one of the “bigger” songs on the album. The instrumentation swells, including electric guitar that gives the song a different flavor than others on the album. The driving percussion and lyrics about the uncertainty of love make it almost “pop” in its feel. The underlying message is that love is not safe but it is good; amen to that. This one reminds me of the magic I first heard from The Oh Hellos, one of the favorites around here. Good stuff.
In a really unique concept for a song, “The Great Sigh” talks about satisfaction. It has more elements of spiritual language, including the sense of eternal peace. These great lyrics help the sweet, almost ambient feel of the song really shine:
I’m looking for the river that won’t run dry
I’m searching for the waters that satisfy
Looking for the river that won’t run dry
I am waiting for the great sigh
“Meet Me Halfway” is a seeker’s song. It’s about as sweet as anything on the album. The acoustic guitar, vocals, and fill electric guitar are brilliant together. It feels more like poetry set to music than a lot of music out today. I say it’s a seeker’s song because it’s about reaching out to something (Someone) greater. The pure sense of longing – both with a desire for acceptance and for connection – is really palpable and powerful. The duet harmonies are just about perfect, too, setting off the sense of harmony at the heart of the track. It’s the kind of song that might pass under the radar for most, but is really quite exquisite.
“Threads” is the most metaphorical of the tracks on the album. Using another stripped down acoustic feel and exceptional melodic turns ala Neil Young, it’s a gorgeous composition. It’s more sophisticated that what you might hear from the headline-grabbing singer songwriters in music today, but it deserves plenty of attention. It has a level of imagery, that of fabric and sewing, that points listeners to legacy and personal sense of meaning.
In one sense, I feel like the album gets deeper and more sophisticated as it unfolds. Several of the tracks are really great. Sherman is a fantastic songwriter. It will be great to watch his career in music continue to unfold. Some of the ideas he presents reminds me of the kind of witty philosophy presented by the Milk Carton Kids. Sherman’s sense of musicality and melody really shine through as it accents his poetic and powerful lyrics. This is an album of interest for many of the readers of EarToTheGround, especially those who tend to follow the folk and singer songwriters that I typically cover.