I have to be honest, initially I had no plans to cover this album. To start with, it’s already been out for a year, meaning that am I extremely late to the punch in covering this. Sure, I know it just came out in the United States a short while ago, but it’s already been available on Bandcamp for a heck of a long time by now.
But then I actually heard the latest album from Tami Neilson (titled Don’t Be Afraid), and I knew that I had to cover it. They say that an artist’s best work comes from someplace raw and real, and really, that’s what you get with this album. The events that circulated around this album aren’t easy for me to talk about, mostly because it’s not my story. For those who don’t know, Don’t Be Afraid by Tami Neilson is an album that’s shaped by the death of her father, Ron Neilson. We’ll get into how that really affects the album later on, but on that point, while I had heard this album was something special, part of me wondered if I had any business critiquing an album like this. So I decided to dig into this album and go from there. How did it go?
I’m at a loss for where to start with this album. I think the only appropriate place would be the lyrics and themes. Really, I’ve already explained the biggest concept of this album – life and death. The songwriting here is definitely straightforward, but much like Courtney Marie Andrews who I recently covered, there’s so many intricate details within the writing to really make this stand out. The title track is a message from Tami’s father towards Tami to know that everything is going to be alright. Really, if you’ve heard “The Way Home” from Dave Cobb’s super-project Southern Family earlier this year, this album picks up where that album left off, exploring how death is inevitable, but Tami’s father is never going to leave her in spirit. He’ll always be with her. That’s not even to mention the fact that it’s the last song that Ron Neilson ever wrote, started by him in his hospital bed and later finished by Tami and her brother, Jay.
As you can tell by now, that title track sets the groundwork for this entire project, and trust me, we’re coming back to it later on. Anyway, while Tami’s father tells her in the first song to not be afraid, being afraid after the death of a loved one is really almost too natural, and it’s understandable that a lot of this album finds Tami in more of a somber mood than say on her last album, Dynamite. Really, you can tell the meanings behind a lot of these songs just looking at the titles. “Lonely” is about, well, being lonely and not having anyone to lean on in times of need. It’s almost too bone-chillingly ironic that Ron Neilson started writing this song twenty years ago. That sense of exploring emotions continues on tracks like “If Love Were Enough” where she literally ponders how she could keep people from leaving her if only her love for them was enough to keep them around. Then you have seemingly more directly relatable tracks like “Heavy Heart” where at this point on the album, the weight of the sorrow Tami is feeling is too much for her to handle. Like any bad situation in life, we can’t turn it off like we want to. “The First Man” goes even more direct by literally being an ode to Tami’s father and all of the things he did for Tami in his time on earth. The album started with Ron Neilson talking to Tami, and it ends with Tami honoring her father. Quite fitting if you ask me.
Now, when talking about Tami Neilson as a vocalist, holy God what is there to really say that everyone else hasn’t said better? She’s got the power and the passion to really be considered one of the best singers out there in Country or Americana, hell, any genre. Really, it’s that combination of passion and power that makes this album so damn powerful. Most singers can go for one of the two vocal elements, but few can boast both. There’s a raw intensity to the title track that’s honestly one of the best vocal performances of this year. Really, that intensity is evident all over this album, and to single out any other singular track would be unfair to the rest. On the subject of guest vocalists, Tami Neilson brings in fellow Americana artist Marlon Williams to sing on “Lonely” and surprisingly enough the two have a lot of chemistry as vocalists. Producer Delaney Davidson was a great fit on “Running To You” from her last album, and he once again provides great support on the track “Only Tears”. Then you have her backup singers providing a lot of great support on the title track and “Holy Moses”. Again, the vocals all over are incredible, and easily match the lyrics and themes as well as our next point of discussion, the production.
When it comes to the production on this album, it honestly might do just as much, if not more to highlight the mood of this album than the actual lyrics and themes. Much like her debut album, Dynamite from 2014, Tami Neilson’s newest album is one that pulls from soul, rockabilly, country, blues and even gospel at times to craft an album that, while sounding retro at times also sounds very modern and a true evolution of music. I’ve already gone on at length about the title track and the raw intensity that comes with it, and part of that is because the bedrock for that track is a slow burning blues feel that almost feels a little sinister at times. Then you have the absolutely explosive (in a good way) follow-up, “Holy Moses” which is where the rockabilly sound really comes into play. On an album that definitely has to find that tricky balance between the somber songs and the more “happier” songs, this song is a welcome fit to the album. This track kicks all amounts of ass, and really, to be able to say that about the first two tracks really told me that this album would be special. The more bluesy, soulful sound is also evident on tracks like “So Far Away” which really has a great rollicking guitar riff to it. “Bury My Body” is loaded with so much attitude as Tami tells the listener that, even though her physical body may decay one day, her spirit will never die.
Of course, the more country flavored tracks also are worthy of praise as well. “Lonely” really feels like it could have been a Patsy Cline song or at least come from that era of country music, and the same can be said about the slow love ballad, “If Love Were Enough”. “Only Tears” actually switches things up by opting for a more direct honky-tonk sound complete with pedal steel and a fiddle that has some great texture to it.
Now, the production is also where talking about this album can get a little tricky. Remember when I talked about this album trying to balance the more somber ballads with tracks that opt for more upbeat tones? Well, that happens more than just on “Holy Moses”, and really, I’m not quite sure they were needed. Now, like I said, this is a tricky predicament. I’m honestly reminded of “Super 8” from Jason Isbell’s 2013 album Southeastern and how that track felt oddly out of place on that album. Not a bad song, just out of place, and that’s kind of where I fall on tracks like “Loco Mama” and “Laugh, Laugh, Laugh” on this album. The former is a Latino inspired song that is actually quite fun, and would even be a welcome fit on say, a Mavericks album, but again, it’s out of place. “Laugh, Laugh, Laugh” is honestly the one track on this album however that I could really do without. There’s too much going on in the production to really stick the landing for me. Honestly, it’s the one track I keep skipping when I listen to this.
Let me stress again however that this is a tricky criticism, mostly because it’s a damn hard tonal balance to achieve. Plus, Don’t Be Afraid not only works overall, but works to magnificent results. This is an album that is raw, honest, and real, an album that if nothing else can be seen as an ode to Tami’s father, Ron. Between the writing, the production, and the vocals, this album is a trifecta of greatness. Folks, I know that I am EXTREMELY late to the punch in covering this, but trust me when I say that in terms of raw intensity, you’ll be hard pressed to find an album quite like this. It’s further proof of why Tami is one of the best artists out there right now, regardless of genre.
Best Songs: “Don’t Be Afraid”, “Holy Moses”, “So Far Away”, “Bury My Body”, “Heavy Heart”, “Only Tears”, “The First Man”
Worst Song: “Laugh, Laugh, Laugh”