New Hampshire singer songwriter, Paul Nelson, grew up in the church and music has always been a part of his life. Once he heard Neil Young’s Harvest as a teenager, he began playing guitar and writing songs, but it was only later in life, after serving in the Navy, a career in the utilities industry, and a family, Paul began playing open mikes and various church gigs. This eventually led to him meeting folk musician, Ellis Paul, who has been something of a mentor and who Nelson credits with “waking him up” to his potential. Opening for Ellis Paul gigs has led to Nelson’s new album, Open Under Through, a terrifically fresh collection of Americana, featuring great arrangements of really fine songs. It’s a well-produced album, with a top notch set of musicians. It’s laid back and bluesy, yet with a gentle intensity. It’s one the best albums I’ve heard this year.
I was really attracted to the album, first of all, because it’s really nicely packaged. It’s good quality, robust, it’s got a lovely cover, all the information’s there, and you’ve got a booklet with the lyrics. That was a great start but then when I started to play it, Paul Nelson’s performance, the songs, the arrangements and the musicianship all drew me in and had me listening a second time as soon as the album was finished.
I got talking to Paul, who told me that he wanted “the sparseness of a Greg Brown – just a nice gravelly voice and lots of space,” and “the cool sophistication of a Robbie Robertson record.” Robertson is a particular hero of Nelson’s – of Somewhere Down the Crazy River, he said, “If it was on it on vinyl, I would have worn through it. I love that song.”
And for sure you can hear echoes of Robbie Robertson, especially on the title track, Over Under Through, an enigmatic song about the search for salvation, on which Nelson raspily whispers the lyrics.
The album kicks off with the swampy Go Down Ezekiel, shimmering with southern heat and soaked with bluesy intent. Immediately we get introduced to the guitar skills of Kevin Barry, who has toured and recorded with Rosanne Cash, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ray Lamontagne, Marc Cohn and others. The slightly sinister slide guitar on this track is utterly beguiling and suits the rather unusual subject matter well.
The song is based on the prophet of ancient Israel, Ezekiel, who is instructed to go wading in the great river of God, and gradually keeps moving out until the water is up to his neck. But for Nelson, his “story really isn’t, you know, biblically accurate. But I remember this story of somebody, an angel telling someone to get a measuring stick and measure out something, the temple or whatever. And then I remember other stories about bringing somebody down to the river. So, he goes down to the river, and an angel is gonna be his guide. And then I have him slowly going out deeper and deeper. Until the point where, basically, he’s saying, listen, it’s only when you dive in and take a risk that anything is really going to happen in your life. And I didn’t plan that. I just knew he was getting deeper and deeper, and sooner or later he’s gonna be over his head and then what?” With this in mind the song sounds a bit like it’s Paul Nelson’s own musical history in view here.
But as you listen through the album, you can hear all sorts of echoes and references to biblical passages and imagery, usually quite subtly done. Nelson said, “Yeah. I just find that the whole biblical thing is just very fascinating, aside from my own faith or belief.” He went on to talk about the song Secret, which he said, “is me struggling with the idea of being transformed or changed and feeling like a hypocrite.”
Secret is a hugely fascinating song:
I’ve been pretending
And Keeping a winner’s smile
Keeping appearances up
Dying all the while inside
But the singer is going to “take out this secret” from the “dark and lonely places,” and “drag it out into the light…’til every scrap is burned, In the heat of your consuming fire.” All of which recall various passages from both Old and New Testaments. Nelson is quick to add this caveat though, “But don’t get the idea that I’m not sinning like a banshee on the weekend because I probably still am!” A mysterious mood is created by the song’s arrangement, with Nelson’s soulful vocals and some wondrous lap steel guitar work by Kevin Barry. Nelson said he “could almost call this album Paul Nelson featuring Kevin Berry,” given the deft, tasteful guitar throughout.
Relative is a reminder that the here and now is not the be all and end all – “We should make the best of times, And keep the master plan in mind.” While Silent Majority, in a more rocky mood, bemoans the political indifference and silence of people, and challenges to us to “say what needs to be said.” Namely, that violence is no answer and injustice is rampant. Love needs to “take a stand.” Again, we have some biblical imagery: “justice cries out in the streets, Who will answer the call,” recalling again the prophets of ancient Israel.
With the Robbie Robertson-esque title track, given its mysterious quality by some beautiful flugel horn from Jeff Oster and Nelson’s half whispered vocals, Nelson says he had just finished reading the whole Tolkien Lord Of The Rings-Hobbit series for the second time when he wrote the song, and that also loosely in his mind was Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. “And there’s all kinds of little nuggets [of biblical imagery] in there. Like “he drew pictures in the sand” – if you don’t know your New Testament, you wouldn’t know that.” The Tolkien and Bunyan backgrounds help explain the journey trajectory of the song, with the singer making his way through all kinds of pain and affliction before eventually discerning salvation must be a gift. It’s cleverly done.
There’s one cover on the album, Johnny Cash’s I Walk the Line, which is a very different arrangement than the original but it brings out some of the song’s yearning in a fresh way. Nelson said he “was just sitting playing that opening chord, like in my Sunday morning writing session – you know I typically write on the weekends when I have a lot more time. I was just playing that over and I just started singing, “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.” And I said, wow this is this is kind of interesting. And so that’s how that came by. It didn’t change at all in the studio except for allowing space for Kevin to do that cool fresh, simple solo. It’s beautiful.”
Nelson says he recently heard Rosanne Cash talking about the song. “I always thought it was something about Johnny Cash being in prison and, you know, the white line and walking the line. But now she says that he was making a promise to his first wife that, you know, on the road I’m yours. And my version keeps to that which I’m happy about.”
Right in the middle of the album we get what I think are two little gems of songs, Lay a Little and Alice Mullin. Paul explained that his dad was a “holy roller,” a church pastor and the family would move every couple of years to a different congregation, and they ended up in a small little town in western Ohio. So Alice Mullin “was a girl that I had a crush on in first grade. If you can have a crush when you’re that young! Then one night I was maybe with a glass of wine or something and I was being reflective and I was thinking, Alice Mullin, you know I wonder what she’s doing? You know all these years later.” He goes on to explain that the song is actually “a lot about being indecisive or being contradictory in our thinking…so like I’m a blind man with a vision or I’m a wise man with no answers.”
The song is supported by some fine flugel horn from Jeff Oster and Kevin Barry’s heart- rending acoustic guitar. “Kevin grabbed a little Taylor off the wall and threw in that acoustic solo in the middle, in, I think, it was just one or two takes.”
Lay a Little has what I think of as a classic ‘70s rock sound. It’s a very cool song. Paul told me that, although the groove of the song was right from the outset, it took a while to get the lyrics right, and it was only with a rewrite that he got it into shape. “And so, it ends up being about my ex-wife and now I know what I mean to say. I love that song. I always thought it was something that people would really like, and Kevin’s guitar work is so tasteful. And I don’t know if you can hear Tom [Eaton] playing the Hammond B3 in the background. When it comes in the second verse, it’s just, well it’s perfect.”
The album comes to a very hopeful climax with There is Weeping, full of gospel harmonies and upbeat lyrics. It’s a wonderful way to finish an album, which to this point has had its fair share of reality, dark moments and questions.
To see this world of madness and fear…
But I will yet hope, his steadfast love I know
Never leaves us, never fails
As the music rises to a climax of hope, Paul Nelson sings,
Only you and I can be the feet and the hands
To bring a song of hope to the world
This is a beguiling, wonder of an album, a labour of love from a hugely talented artist. Buy it, enjoy it and look forward to more from Paul Nelson.