Toen ik Israel Nash voor het eerst hoorde, een kleine maand geleden, ging het om een stripped down live versie van twee van de nummers op dit album. Textbook americana die aanleunt bij een jonge Neil Young, herinneringen ophaalt aan CCR en zelfs Crosby, Stills & Nash. Je hoort een muziek gebed in rock, met invloeden uit country, folk en gedrenkt in een psychedelische bodem.
Het was dan even héél lichtjes schrikken toen ik Topaz beluisterde. Die bovengenoemde basis zit er vanzelfsprekend, maar Nash experimenteert volop met een véél rijker geluid. Hij dikt zijn nummers aan met blazers en gospel koortjes en voegt zodoende een pak (Muscle Shoals and Memphis) soul toe aan de nummers. Een experiment dat je gerust geslaagd kan noemen en waarbij zijn stem helemaal tot zijn recht komt. Anderzijds doet het ook meteen verlangen naar akoestische versies waarbij ik duidelijk hoor dat elk nummer op Topaz zonder enig probleem overeind blijft.
Van bij het openingsnummer Dividing Lines tot Southern Coasts passeren de nummers op een gezapig tempo dat erg rustgevend werkt. Country, rock en folk gaan hand in hand, al zijn die blazers prominent aanwezig en moet je niet te veel hopen op lange gitaarsolo's.
Stay is dan helemaal soul. Bij de aanzet zit ik zelfs even te wachten tot een herrezen Bill Withers die herkenbare strot laat horen. Het zou een perfecte match geweest zijn, al neemt dat niet weg van de 'prestatie' van Nash.
Na dit intermezzo is het terug naar de sound van de eerste nummers waarbij de harmonica en Hammond het prachtige Canyonheart aftrappen en Indiana voorzichtig wat meer gitaarwerk laat horen. Bij Sutherland Springs domineert de pedal steel en op afsluiter Pressure haalt Nash vocaal helemaal de Neil Young in zichzelf naar boven.
De man is in Nederland geen onbekende, maar wat België betreft zal het aan ons zijn om een doorbraak te forceren vrees ik. Beste landgenoten, laat jullie niet afschrikken door de clichés die je hoort/leest wat échte americana betreft, Topaz is namelijk véél te rijk om links te laten liggen.
Releasedatum: 12 maart 2021
“Music can be the space where people think––even just for a few minutes,” says Israel Nash. “The space is not about changing their lives or political views or their party ticket. It’s about creating something that prompts reflection in a moment––and those reflections have other chain reactions.”
Nash is sitting outside in the sun, thinking. It’s something he does often, looking out over endless Texas hills that surround his family’s rural home. He’s thought a lot over the last several years about music––not only how to make it, but why. What is the endgame for Nash, a critically acclaimed rock-and-roll groovesman, personally?
Nash’s magnificent new album, Topaz, is what happened when he found his answers. Nash recorded the album over the course of about a year in the Quonset hut studio he built about 600 feet from his house in the Texas Hill Country. While musician friends from nearby Austin contributed to the project, Topaz marks the first album Nash has recorded mostly on his own, both taking his time and relishing his newfound access to immediacy, punching the red button moments after an idea hit. “It's allowed me to capture sounds and ideas, to really get stuff out of my head and into the world so quickly,” Nash says.
“Topaz really technically is the first album that I’ve worked on so much on my own, and it wasn’t just a single session where we brought everyone in to record at my studio,” Nash says. “This record evolved over a year, in between tours, when I would just be by myself.”
Nash first generated attention more than a decade ago as a rock-and-roll torchbearer based in New York City. European audiences became his earliest devotees, and publications such as MOJO embraced him. Nash spent 6 years in New York, and while the time was formative, his deepest roots are not in crowded urban concrete, but in the sparse Midwest as the son of a pastor. Music grabbed him early, but school was a priority, so Nash went to college and ultimately earned his master’s in political science at the University of Missouri––all while fronting rock bands at night. The move to New York after graduation was exhilarating, then, as Nash and his wife began to crave the country, the two bought a little acreage in Dripping Springs, Texas, packed up, and dug in to what Nash now calls their “forever home.”
“I grew up in little churches that were in the middle of nowhere in Missouri, so having the woods and being outside has been part of me since I was a kid,” Nash says. “I also saw community––just this sense of people needing something, somebody, to look forward to. That was church for them, and that’s okay. I don’t really feel like there is just one right thing to look forward to. As a musician, I think that’s what I’ve found, too––something for people to look forward to, a reason to come together. No matter what changes in my career, that is my anchor: the need people have.”
Topaz aims to satisfy that need: to meet people, right where they are, with music that can be a provocateur, a perfect groove, or both.
Album opener “Dividing Lines” establishes the record’s overarching thematic and sonic vibes with a prescient cry: We can’t get past the divisions currently defining us. “This song grew a lot. I wrote it a while back, but it’s even more true now,” Nash says. “I’m thankful it’s still relevant but I’m also saddened by that. Love doesn’t live there.”
Topaz tackles the country’s current politics, but the album also brims with tenderness––especially in tracks Nash wrote about missing his wife and home. High-pitched songbird guitar kicks off “Closer,” an achingly pretty song with forlorn harmonica and pedal steel giving voice to tears. With a smooth, Tom Jones swing, “Stay” confesses that in that moment, leaving home holds no appeal.
Nash’s voice is a subtle weapon. While early comparisons to Neil Young remain understandable, Nash can also croon and shift into full-on guttural soul singing––with goosebumps-inducing fury. “Down in the Country,” a swampy new classic that sounds like it’s always existed, could have been sung by Wilson Pickett. Nash achieves a stunning cadence when he sings, adopting a distinct way of pausing to give listeners time to think about what we’ve just heard him say––but also leaving open the possibility of a surprise about where Nash decides to take the thought next. “I want the vocals to feel percussive with the drums, because when that stuff goes together as an instrument, it is hypnotic. It is a trip,” Nash says. “Sometimes it’s shaving off or adding the smallest words just to turn the phrase.”
Place also plays an important role in many of Nash’s songs, both in how they were created and in the imagery with which they emerged. “Southern Coasts” is both driving and lazy, like the waves that keep coming but also urge us to relax. With punchy saxophones and snare, “Indiana” captures feelings of despair and longing for breathing room. “There's this cool, romantic idea in movies that you're going to go on tour and write your next album,” Nash says. “That just didn't happen for me. I am a great isolationist when it comes to creating, and that's why I have this space out here, so I'm just completely alone and just can get lost.”
Stripped down “Canyonheart” is an anthemic singalong, destined to be sung back to Nash when crowds gather together again. “Howling Wind” is more reassurance––an ode to dependability in a fractured time.
Nash concludes Topaz with two breath-takers: “Sutherland Springs” and “Pressure.” Penned about the worst mass shooting in Texas history, “Sutherland Springs” sits with pain, fear, and the impossibility of answers. A story song with haunting guitar and percussion, “Pressure” moves through desperation, hatred, and agony. Nash recorded it alone, isolated during quarantine. “It’s about the Man,” he says. “I just made the story up, taking pieces of people feeling like they’re screwed over by a system that’s bigger than them, faceless, and just so different than they are. Regardless of politics, these are human problems.” It is a masterpiece, both timeless and timely, begging for empathy when so many of us feel as though we cannot understand one another.
Nash is often portrayed as a metaphysics-loving hippie, living off the land alone––and he is. But he is also a pragmatist with a master’s degree who needs time in the city and to be with people. Nash’s gentle insistence that he is all of these things––and more––is an important reminder for the rest of us: We all contain multitudes.
“I hope Topaz can be a space for people to just feel,” Nash says. “I think feeling is the biggest motivator we have. Feelings are what move us to act. I want to find more regular people who think this too, and then see where it goes from there.”