Nicki Bluhm: To Rise You Gotta Fall

Nicki Bluhm
To Rise You Gotta Fall
(Compass)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Look no further than the name and song titles of singer-songwriter Nicki Bluhm’s first album in three years to understand this isn’t going to be a feel-good platter. Tunes such as “Something Really Mean,” “You Stopped Loving Me (I Can’t Stop Loving You),” “Can’t Fool the Fool,” and the cringingly direct “I Hate You” set the stage for a batch of mostly introspective (if not quite downer) ballads where Bluhm tries to come to terms with a recent divorce and an impulsive move from California to Nashville. She also jettisoned her longstanding Gramblers band (ex-husband Tim Bluhm was not only a guitarist in that outfit but a major songwriting contributor), joined forces with producer Matt Ross-Spang and worked with veteran musicians such as Wilco’s Ken Coomer and guitarist Will Sexton in Sam Phillips’ Memphis studio.

Not surprisingly, this transforms Bluhm’s sound from the relatively sunny West Coast pop that dominates her previous albums, to a more soulful, doe-eyed R&B reflecting this collection’s melancholy and occasionally angry concepts of a clearly painful breakup she hasn’t necessarily put behind her. Expressive excerpts like “You left me when I needed you most/I’m the anchor and you’re the ghost,” “I thought that you loved me, I was so blind” and “Did you really think no one would see through your façade?” are so personal it seems like the listener is thumbing through Bluhm’s diary as she reveals her inner angst.

At their best, as on the title track, these songs ride on classic Memphis grooves with subtle funk, soul, gospel and country touches. Occasional sax and female backing vocals bring extra rootsy qualities to selections that are inherently distraught. Bluhm’s sweet voice, though, is sometimes at odds with these sentiments, singing heartbreaking words with a honeyed style that doesn’t feel edgy or dark enough. She hits a Neko Case-type depth on “Battlechain Rose” singing “Break of dawn I wept in the middle of the bed,” over a tough folk-pop melody. Her voice cracks convincingly on the achingly slow country blues of “I Hate You” aiming for Linda Ronstadt territory, but sounds sterile on the hurtful closer “Last To Know.” The gospel glam “Things I’ve Done” tries to bring some rocking to a predominantly melancholy vibe but it comes off as a weak, somewhat forced Stones attempt. Ditto for the swampy “It’s OK Not To Be OK,” that never catches fire despite everyone giving it their best shot. The backing musicianship is as top notch as you would expect from these pros yet often feels rote, as if the musicians are working by charts, not heart.

There remains plenty to appreciate about Bluhm’s newfound direction on what can best be described as that old cliché, her “breakup album.” But the stiff, somewhat rote quality to some performances prevents them from being as potent and incisive as she is aiming for in lyrics that are raw, emotional and riveting.