While the rest of the world adjusted to working from the comfort of their living room last year, I was already accustomed as a freelance writer – home as a workspace is all I’ve known for the past decade. However, layer after layer of gloom and doom that surrounded 2020 weighed down on a good lot of us, but for those of us in creative realms – it pushed us. We had nothing to do but make something out of anything because it beat staring hopelessly at a dismal newsfeed. Feeds that often inspired us to make better, to do better. For me, it was a positive podcast. For Nathaniel Paul, it was his 2021 release ‘Learning to Listen.’
Nathaniel Paul dug deep for his debut solo album and throughout it is easy to hear a myriad of musical influences as well as the heart, and sort of wishful thinking many of us had when times took a turn for the worse over the past year. There is this sort of dreamlike haze that surrounds a number of songs though, such as his leading singles “Songbird” and “Virtues.” While he bears what appear to be the pages of his heart’s journal in song, I can’t help but imagine these tracks playing while driving towards nothing but the horizon through the likes of Joshua Tree. Brisk summer evening drives came to mind, which is ironic given this record comes from a Brooklyn-based artist.
It is easy to notice right away with those songs that Nathaniel Paul is a wordsmith, a common-day troubadour as songs like “The Phone” take me back to the way bands like Fastball were able to construct these wonderful narratives and set them to an offbeat arrangement of sounds. I also appreciated his addition to the lazy day anthems with the rightfully titled, “Lazy Sunday.” Much like songs from the past by Jason Mraz and Plain White T’s, “Lazy Sunday” is the perfect song for those days when you don’t want to do a thing, but unlike those aforementioned songs, Nathaniel’s comes through in a very laid back way.
And while his lead singles took my mind home to the deserts of California, “H.D.” and “Silence” went hand in hand in placing me right back in the heart of Brooklyn, as did their track-sibling “Love Gives Itself Away.” It was great to be lazy and go from here to there, but there was one track on this record that did make me stop dead in my tracks and sort of proved what I’d been talking about to a lot of musicians over the course of the past year, and that’s the impact 2020 would have on music (and art as a whole) moving forward.
The title track, “Learning to Listen,” was where I felt like Nathaniel Paul’s voice was at its strongest. While his voice teamed up with the music in every other song, here it took the lead – and I’d love to hear this song stripped down even more in the near future. Personal wishes aside, this song took I think a lot of universal feelings from the past year or so and beautifully arranged them in a song that asks more questions than I think society is ready to answer. Two of the most poignant being “How many lives lost before it becomes real?” and “Why sell a man a gun when you can lend him a hand?” The first relates to everything from the pandemic to the lives lost to police and gun violence, and the latter well – for anyone who has watched American news, it’s clear that guns are an issue that needs to be handled because enough is truly enough.
Those interested in partaking in a wonderful album that is indie-pop at its core with alternative rock hints and singer-songwriter charm can check out Nathaniel Paul’s ‘Learning to Listen,’ available now on all major music and streaming platforms.
Written by Kendra Beltran