“The right hand holds the pen. The left wrist tells me when.”
So sings Beaver Nelson on “Body of Work,” which tallies various costs – physical and mental -- of doing a job well. The song is quintessential Nelson: contemplative about time and life, earnest and honest about how we spend it. Though applicable to any trade, “Body of Work” accounts for a process he’s defined and refined more than 100 times over 30 years. Sitting down and putting words and melodies together to tell a story.
“Have you seen that photograph Annie Leibovitz took of Pele’s feet?” he asks.
For those who haven’t, the soccer star’s feet almost resemble puddles, grossly misshapen from years of stop-and-go running and pounding a ball toward a net.
“That’s real. We’re lopsided. It’s internal and external. People have the appearance of symmetry, right? But what you form forms you, and your body takes the shape of the function you perform.”
He quotes the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime.”
That comment makes additional sense when one considers the fact that Nelson titled his debut album “The Last Hurrah.” For Nelson time is neither linear nor circular, but rather a series of spirals gently arcing into an even larger spiral.
To that end, some of the first sounds heard on his new album “A Friend From Out of Town” are provided by his daughter on violin. That small brushstroke of instrumentation was a deliberate connection to “Company of Kings,” the opening song on “Last Hurrah,” released 23 years ago. The violin then was provided by beloved Texas music player Champ Hood, who died in 2001. Back then Nelson sang about entering the wilderness: “Sometimes you find some company,” he sang. “Sometimes you just find bones.”
The simplest instrumental decision speaks to the passage of time, the loss of a friend and the joy of parenthood. And it takes place before the words begin.
The new album feels like a decoder ring for all of Nelson’s work. It pushes a listener back just a little to see thematic shapes that inform the songs spiraling from one to the next. Moments – like the opening fiddle – push the listener back further where one can observe the album’s twisting movements as part of a larger arcing shape that runs across his discography. “To me,” he says, “it’s just one unbroken thing.”
“A Friend From Out of Town” is a brisk and brilliant addition to Nelson’s discography, his ninth album. “I set out to make a vital record,” he says. “I hope that comes across to people who’ve listened to me for a long time.”
Those unfamiliar with Nelson’s work should find it welcoming. He possesses a great gift for using the simplest observation to seed a song.
An old friend, Matt Giles, offered studio time and Nelson took advantage of a room that required some logistical concessions, as there was no air conditioning, and flight patterns at the local airport had to be tracked so incoming and outgoing flights didn’t interrupt a take. A daughter’s fiddle here, and a friend’s electric guitar there. But for the most part the record is the most stripped down of Nelson’s career: He sings and plays guitar and Mike Middleton (Mojo Nixon, Jello Biafra, Dave Alvin, Junior Brown) put down the drums. The result is bracing and unfussy. The focus lands on the words and the melodies, which have long been the backbone of Nelson’s work.
“This might be where it all breaks down,” he sings on “Competence Is Kindness.” “This might be where it turns around.”
Nelson speaks frankly about his curious path. He appeared to be on the brink at 19 – a kid who left Houston for Austin and caught the ear of Rolling Stone, which deemed him “a teenage songwriting prodigy.” Early ‘90s performances offered a sort of rootsy Replacements vibe. The rawness of the performances sometimes belied the meticulousness of the lyrics. But those forces collided into something special that positioned Nelson for some seemingly inevitable break. Two record deals came and went bust, delaying his progress from selling cassettes to something bigger.
So “The Last Hurrah” became the first hurrah, with several hurrahs to follow. What resulted was a discography remarkable for its breadth. A goldmine of songs that sounded thrillingly rangy as performed by Nelson, but packed with the sort of thematic depth and melodic warmth that should circulate them well beyond his records and shows.
Family and friends, love and life and death, time, nature, work, struggle, accountability, Nelson has written about the most relatable subjects with knowing use of metaphor and a watchmaker’s precision in his meter. These songs are structured such that they could spiral through the world in any number of styles or forms.
The new “Remember Her” perfectly captures the way Nelson can imagine or observe a moment in time many of us might fail to note and transforms it into something affecting. He knew his child was in college and not having the best of days. And yet Nelson received a text with a blurry image of a robin in a tree. “He knew its name, and that’s all because of his mother. It made me think, ‘Don’t remember me. Remember her.’ I wrote that song that day, I played it for my wife, and we were just bawling.”
The album also includes a pandemic song in “Tomorrow Is a Year From Now,” written in the summer of 2020 after Nelson completely lost the use of one arm for months, likely attributable to two bodies of work: toting a guitar over his shoulder and painting houses. The song intertwines with so much of his work, songs like “Mad River,” where time can be marked ominously by a melting candle or hopefully by the perpetual flow of water. “Nothing Left to Pound” manages to compress a life into a few verses, riffing on work, relationships and parenthood.
“At some point you lay the hammer down,” Nelson says. “The work is done.”
Recorded at Matt Giles ‘ house, mixed in Knoxville at Top Hat Studio with John Harvey and Mary Podio, mastered in Oxford by Jeffrey Reed at Taproot Audio Design, artwork by Matt Eskey; Nelson pulled different elements and trusted expertise together in his musical time-travel experiment.
The struggles in these songs are matched with a resilience, creating a record full of motion, certainly, but also balance. The title track and the closing “Singing Bowl” are calibrated for perfect balance to frame the album. The former opens with a phone call and is the shortest song. The latter closes with a restless instrumental coda. Nelson says, “I had a piece of music that I couldn’t get a handle on. I asked my wife many times what it was. She kept saying it was a hymn, but I couldn’t find the way in. One night around midnight I was doing the dishes and taped to the window was a poem by a friend of mine, Malcolm Guite (a poet and priest and chaplain of Girton College Cambridge). I knew instantly that I had found the purpose for that music. It was unlike anything I had ever felt before.” At 11 minutes it’s the longest, and has a large cast of family and friends. It feels almost like a map detailing what has transpired over the previous 40 minutes.
“Begin the song exactly where you are,” Nelson sings. “Remain within the world of which you’re made. Call nothing common in the Earth or air.”
The song functions almost as a prayer or a humbled statement of gratitude.
Which brings to mind the Niebuhr quote. “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime.”
Niebuhr followed that line with another that also applies to these 11 songs and the hundred or so that Nelson wrote before them.
“Therefore we must be saved by hope.”
Andrew Dansby, January 27, 2023