Nathan Gray – Working Title (Album Review)

When a man sets fire to his past and then arises triumphantly to sing among the ashes, well, you have Nathan Gray’s Working Title. End Hits Records deliver the story of a man in progress on Friday, January 31, 2020.

Maryland-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Nathan Gray is no stranger to music. As the frontman of the seminal Punk outfit Boysetsfire, he’s released six albums and countless EPs over the past 26 years, toured the world, and witnessed the best and the worst of Rock-n-Roll.  Always prolific, aside from the band there have been a multitude of projects to keep the talented musician busy, though he eventually found himself in an unhealthy spot, both mentally and physically—and his debut solo disc, 2018’s Feral Hymns, was born.

Now that soul-baring experience has paved the way for his newest release, Working Title. Recorded by producer/engineer Pete Steinkopf of The Bouncing Souls (The Menzingers, Brian Fallon), the 13-song sophomore collection picks up where Feral Hymns left off. Whereas the 2018 offering provided an intimate breakthrough, the new collection depicts the long, hope-filled road toward better mental health; a deeply personal evolution that Gray hopes others can relate to. “I wanted to figure out how to help support other people who are in their own dark place,” he explained. “We’re all connected in struggle and realizing that you’re not alone can really help—you think there’s no one that can feasibly understand what you’re going through but in actuality there probably is.

Drawing influence from the formative music of his youth like The Replacements, Bob Mould, and The Cars, Gray continues to release himself from the burdens of his past on Working Title. With the help of Drummer Jake Blochinger (The Banner), Bassist Chris Rakus (Boysetsfire, The Casting Out), and Guitarist Ben Christo (Sisters of Mercy), he has found a more band-oriented sound that incorporated an enticing blend of Punk urgency, Power Pop hooks, and Folk intimacy.

Working Title opens to the bopping pace of the infectiously honest “In My Defense,” where Gray delivers some sincere wit with lines that candidly proclaim he is a “work in progress, indefinitely.” This perfectly sets the tone for the first half of the record, a personal exploration of the upward battle through the hardest days and darkest nights. Understandably, the confessional tone continues in “I’m A Lot,” and is peppered with melodic guitars. A look at perpetual evolution, being lost and then found, there’s a smile baked inside the track’s direct tone.

Another, deeper moment of reflection is experienced amid the bittersweet pace of the titular “Working Title,” where piano, along with background vocals from Chuck Ragan (Hot Water Music), enter the mix flawlessly. Initially a more serious and somber moment, “What About You” builds to triumphant choruses as Gray laments the loss of a relationship where he gave everything for someone who gave nothing in return. No longer a “joyride,” he celebrates his ability to see the lies and the light. Listeners can feel free to interpret the open-ended song however they like, replacing the relationship with any personal struggle.

Next, there’s a moment for breath as Gray presents the touching ballad “Refrain.” Here, he begins the process of picking up the pieces amid an ethereal array of twinkling pianos and Elyse Mitchell’s sobbing cello. Then, admitting outright that bouncing back is never easy, the overwhelmed “Still Here” is a testament to the fact that the singer-songwriter is still standing tall.

So begins the album’s upward trajectory with the fired up “The Markings.” Amping the pace and demanding that you move along to the music, the infectious track is a victorious admission that there’s nothing left to lose or fear. In this, the song provides a respite from the personal heft of what’s come before and paves the way for its equally optimistic followers, like the promises of “Hold” and the acoustics of “Mercy.”

A refusal to break, “No Way” continues to propel the upswing toward positive declarations as infectious gem “Never Alone” offers solidarity and unity, a place for your heart to feel at home. Of course, every real-life battle has back-sliding moments, and “The Fall” acknowledges this, urging listeners to pick themselves up, never turn back, and rejoice in their resilience. Ultimately, the album wraps up with the very last breath, “Down.” Taking everything that has come previously, the triumphs and the falls, the track provides a reclamation of self for its talented creator, a moment to look in the mirror and say, “I’ve been down, but I’m still standing.”

Working Title is the story of a realist: a man who has struggled with his mental health but fought hard to begin the process of bettering himself, though he acknowledges that it will forever be ongoing. Still here and still singing, Gray provides a community for those that are trying to survive their own personal evolutions—those who are fighting to overcome their past, toxic relationships, alcoholism and drug abuse—or simply trying to find a place of solace in this cruel world.

Whatever your mountain to climb, this candid and open songwriter has authored a tale that lays it all on the line in heartfelt vignettes of heartache, loss, and the reclamation of self. With his linear tale of hardship and hope, Gray provides the compassion and growth necessary to inspire others one song at a time. For this, Cryptic Rock give Working Title 4 of 5 stars.


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