Review: Nicki Bluhm’s catharsis — ‘To Rise You Gotta Fall’

To Rise You Gotta Fall

“It’s been studied and proven that extreme emotions, like anger, turn into sadness when left unexpressed, which turns into depression. So they need to be released. In that way, this album seriously saved my life.”  — Nicki Bluhm

Nicki Bluhm, it seemed, had it all. Firmly entrenched in the Northern California roots/jam/folk music community as the wife of a popular artist with a solo career of her own. Until one day, with her decade long-marriage over, she didn’t. Realizing the only way to move forward was to courageously abandon all she knew in that life, she trusted her gut and made a hasty move to Nashville to begin the process of reinventing herself.

“To Rise You Gotta Fall” is in her words, “the conversations she never got to have, the words she never had the chance to say,” and the questions that may forever remain unanswered of how a life with everything painfully disappeared.

Produced by Matt Ross-Spang (Margo Price, Jason Isbell) and recorded at Sam Phillips Recording Studios in Memphis, “To Rise You Gotta Fall” is real and raw. It’s mixed unabashedly with Bluhm out front, taking the listener through her cathartic process of healing a heart in order to move forward. Bluhm’s songwriting and presentations peer so deep into her soul that at times it is both beautiful and heart-wrenching. Anyone who has loved and lost has visited these places, but few expose themselves so vulnerably.

The title track has a great Memphis soul groove and hook and could just as easily have come from a powerhouse such as Susan Tedeschi or Bonnie Raitt. The advance copy of the record has the tune in the third position, though I may have opted to have it appear last, since it seems to come from a place beyond the others in her catharsis.

Nicki Bluhm throws a couple punches as well but manages to do so without bitterness.”

If there is an anthem to be found, the driving bass line, imagery, and chorus of “Battlechain Rose” fits the role. But the true beauty of Bluhm’s solo effort isn’t in its pop-friendly cuts. Enjoyable as they may be, the genuineness of the rest is what makes the record notably unique.

Beginning with “How Do I Love You,” buoyed by a classic ’50s ballad beat, Bluhm recounts some of the touching, tender moments “your hand on the small of my back” that couples share, often unnoticed by others. Then pleading in futility with her partner to back away from the anger to appreciate them, and perhaps save what they have.

Piano ballad “Staring At The Sun” tenderly rises as Bluhm’s lovely vocal asks why the life they had wasn’t enough, and the age-old question of a love gone bad — do you ever think about me?  It has the potential, when performed live, to bring the house down.

With bluesy counterpoint “You Stopped Loving Me (I Can’t Stop Loving You),” Bluhm comes to the realization and acceptance that her love isn’t being returned, yet she simply can’t let go. Ken Coomer (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco) on drums and Dave Smith on bass guide what may be the most beautiful arrangement on the album. Rick Steff’s piano is enough for Bluhm’s soulful vocal to ride upon but snippets of Hammond B3 from Al Gamble and perfectly inserted guitar licks make it a critical listening pleasure.

Nicki Bluhm throws a couple punches as well but manages to do so without bitterness. Bluhm’s cover of Dan Penn’s “I Hate You” features a deep, aching syrupy vocal urging herself to move on with the chorus, “I’m trying to hate you, right out of my mind.” Shortly after recording the tune, Bluhm met Penn and his wife Linda, who revealed to Bluhm that the song is actually about her and its true love/hate meaning.

Her anger and reaction are those that anyone whose heart has been shattered would feel. The two-minute ditty “Something Really Mean” gets right to it with the first line, “Sitting around, thinking of something really mean that would hurt you.” It’s the harshest line in the reflective tune that also shows her beginning to move past the question phase along with the bouncy, Hammond B3 driven “Can’t Fool The Fool” and the punchy soul of, “It’s OK Not To Be OK”.

Finally, the cascading piano of “Last To Know” echoes the fear of every human in love that believes they’re loved, only to discover so much was hidden and the realization of having been duped or blinded.

Nicki Bluhm has put herself out there in the purest sense. It’s a record for solace with a glass of wine on a rainy day, or to belt out rolling down the road. It’s a record to reconcile the pain, and the triumph of emerging on the other side.

– Michael Smyth

  • Nicki Bluhm
    “To Rise You Gotta Fall”
    Release: Friday, June 1, 2018
    Label: Compass Records

About Michael Smyth

Michael Smyth moved to Reno in 2007 after living more than 40 years in the Bay Area. In addition to going to live shows, he enjoys golf, skiing and fly-fishing. Check out his website www.bombilations.com

One comment

  1. Thank you so much for the insightful review and mention, Michael! Of course this was a labor of love, loss and found again for Nikki. It was an honor to be a piece in the making of this album.

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