Nicole Atkins says goodnight to Rhonda Lee
We are on an airplane flying through the night. As a five-note riff fills the air, you can almost see the girl resting her head against the window, staring out into the black and pondering about a relationship gone wrong. Nicole Atkins knows how to evoke this kind of heartache. Her crooning is smooth and intense. She counts down the years of her relationship and at every number your heart skips a beat: nine years ago was just like yesterday, seven years ago he told her he had plans to go, three years ago felt like a lifetime. If we weren’t on a plane, we would be in a dive bar drinking our sorrows away or in some Frank Sinatra’s Capitol album, or maybe both.
Written with Jim Sclavunos of Bad Seeds fame, A Night of Serious Drinking makes the writer René Daumal drinking with Lee Hazlewood on an airplane 36,000 feet high. It’s one of the best songs featured on the fourth Nicole Atkins album Goodnight Rhonda Lee, a fantastic emotional ride that excavate feelings that range from pain to joy. Born out of a period of transition – as the Old 97’s singer Rhett Miller puts it in the liner notes, the songs started to come in little bursts of therapeutic creativity – the album is a journey from worry and inaction to achievement and dedication. This time, Atkins wears her influences on her sleeve. She put together a Spotify playlist where you find some clue: Candi Stanton, Dusty Springfield, Frank Sinatra, Roy Orbison, Harry Nilsson, the Italian singer Mina. Soul, crooning and rock music. Yet the record, produced with the team of Niles City Sound that took care of Leon Bridges’ debut, sounds personal and propelled by grit and energy. It proves you can capitalize on the old-school aesthetics without sounding retromanic. This is Nicole’s most enjoyable album.
Goodnight Rhonda Lee was recorded live to tape. What you’re hearing here is a bunch of musicians, including saxophone, trumpet, violin and cello players, who enjoy being together in a room. You can almost hear the air around some instruments. Always a talented and versatile performer, Nicole Atkins commands the funky Darkness Falls So Quiet and the ballad Colors, an otherworldly confession for piano, voice and strings. Written with Chris Isaak and featured on Cameron Crowe’s Roadies, A Little Crazy channels Roy Orbison through a huge melody, the bittersweet sound of a steel guitar and old-fashioned lyrics. The song Goodnight Rhonda Lee, a ballad that I can imagine sung by Bruce Springsteen in 1979, refers to the drinking and misbehaving alter ego Nicole gets rid of. She’s not rude with her: she sings her goodbye using a marvelous empathic tone. The video accompanying Listen Up is funny – Nicole has a comedy face – but it may be distracting. When it’s played on the album, the song fully reveals its wide range of emotions, from self-pity to anger to hope.
Now we are on the Jersey Shore, strolling along dilapidated buildings. I Love Living Here (Even When I Don’t) sounds like the sequel to Neptune City, an hymn to the faded beauty of the Jersey town where Atkins grew up. Ten years later, she has moved to Nashville, but she occasionally comes back home. The song depicts one of these moments. The horns play a riff that wouldn’t be out of place in a Van Morrison album, everything moves in slow motion. You hold your breath at the exact moment when she starts to sing. She enters a bar in her beat up little town and she looks around. «No one knows the real you», she ponders, «just the character you play». You feel the same tension that was at work in Neptune City. The singer would like to burn the town to the ground, yet she cannot help herself but loving the «broken down palaces by the oceanside». Nicole Atkins know how to write and sing love songs about places. She can sing about anything: the range of emotions she expresses across these 11 tracks is impressively wide.
A Dream Without Pain is an uplifting ending for an album that starts with a moment of unabashed vulnerability such as A Little Crazy. The sound of a guitar evokes a dreaming state. Nicole’s voice is oddly low in the mix, so you struggle a bit hearing what is been sung. When you get it – it’s «I woke up from a nightmare to a dream» – you realize that heartbreak, self-pity, and worry are slowly dissolving. As the guitar riff goes over and over again like some psychedelic mantra, you feel totally safe for the first time in 40 minutes. The narrative arc of Goodnight Rhonda Lee goes from darkness to light. It’s not the first time, though. Nicole Atkins’ debut album ended with The Party’s Over that in retrospective seems like another way of saying goodnight to Rhonda Lee after a night of debauchery: «Darling, it is almost morning / This is our last warning / Let’s get out while we can». Above as Below, the closing track of the third album Slow Phaser, sounded like another safe haven after a rough ride. Maybe happiness is just a temporary feeling, but every time Nicole Atkins reminds us that change don’t come easily, that’s where the magic happens.