The lyrical acumen on display with the ten song collection Swan and Wolf won’t surprise anyone who’s followed Nathaniel Bellows’ trajectory through modern American public life. He’s an artist with a wide foundation in various forms – music, prose, poetry, and visual art all fall within his purview. His second full length album Swan and Wolf continues his musical journey and shows his powers as a songwriter exponentially expanding from his well received debut. Bellows is a particularly well received poet with some plum publication credits to his name and even a cursory listen to the songs on Swan and Wolf illustrates how well he’s transitioned that sensibility into these musical arrangements without ever compromising them as songs. The balance of elements fueling the cuts on Swan and Wolf is expertly handled. Nathaniel Bellows has followed up his debut in exquisite fashion and solidifies his standing as one of the best indie songwriters working today.
“Only Love” is definitely a folk song, but it has the closest commercial leanings of any song on Swan and Wolf. The level of excellence he brings to his song construction and the way he structures the musical arrangements around the lyrics is as distinctive as anything you’ll hear from the folk or singer/songwriter style in our modern era. The inclusion of artful piano on the track “How High” gives it a spin that the opener lacks, but they definitely share strong refrains and the same general sense of delicacy manifested in every verse. There’s a lightly played undercurrent of unease running through this song that the moody piano lines accentuate for listeners. The dynamics orchestrating some of these songs may be one of Swan and Wolf’s most underrated qualities and one of the finest expressions of that comes with the song “Add to This” – it evolves slowly from a rather muted, sedate acoustic number into a vocal showcase by song’s end with post-production touches enhancing the cut as a whole. “To Wait” shares the same mysterious, gossamer-like effervescence characterizing many of the album’s tracks, but there’s always a definable structure even with Bellows’ more whispery numbers and this is no exception. He has a deeply meditative spirit as both a songwriter and performer that eschews bluster in favor of examination and that’s a quality coming through quite strongly as well.
The melodic strengths of “What Then” help make it one of the album’s more important tunes and the vocal arrangement, once again, steals the aural show in some respects. The lyrics are more outward looking than some of Bellows’ other songwriting for the album, but he’s one of those writers who reveals just as much about himself as it does others when writing about them. There’s some nice understated percussion with “It Wasn’t” and a more traditional folky feel than we may be used to from Bellows, but it works exceptionally well. Swan and Wolf closes with the song “In Time” and Bellows seizes it as an opportunity to expand his instrumental range a little bringing strings into play with great results. Nathaniel Bellows’ Swan and Wolf is a more than worthy successor to The Old Illusions and finds him growing increasingly comfortable and confident as a recording artist.