There’s something unparalleled about a songwriter telling their own honest story. Yes, another’s lore told by a great troubadour can be immensely compelling – see Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” for example – but there’s something almost unnerving about a clear, present, personal truth. On David Nail’s fourth studio album Fighter, available today, the Missouri native offers just that: vulnerability, for better or for worse, sung by one of the most stunning voices in country music.
Nail began Fighter as “a love making record” – a theme evident in tracks like “Good At Tonight,” “Got Me Gone,” and single “Night’s On Fire,” which focus on short-lived carnal pleasure.”Champagne Promise,” on which Logan Brill provides background vocals, toasts an alluring woman. “Lie With Me,” which was originally recorded by Lady Antebellum on their 2014 album 747, asks both for the making and faking of love.
However, Fighter is an album held together by a much stronger glue, one that has no interest in the glories of a single night.
Nail’s biggest risks on the album aren’t sonic – although “Good At Tonight,” featuring the Brothers Osborne, may be the most jaunty and uptempo Nail has ever sounded – they’re in the songwriting, and its vulnerability.
“Babies,” which Nail wrote with Scooter Carusoe and Lee Thomas Miller, was inspired by the birth of his twins, a topic he told CMT he was initially reluctant to put in song. “It’s just really a conversation between me and the kids,” he said. “Just kind of telling my story, telling my life story, and then kind of our story. Our story of how they got here and how they forever changed us.”
“Babies” is impressive in that it’s clearly quite true – lines like “after years of trying / not just one but two” stand out. But perhaps more importantly, it addresses fertility struggles, which can be painful to discuss for many couples. Nail makes reference not once, but twice.
It’s a strength that permeates the album, which features seven songs written or co-written by Nail (previous release I’m A Fighter only had four penned by the artist, and his last recorded solo write was 2013’s “Catherine”). Fighter boasts two solo writes: “Old Man’s Symphony,” featuring Bear and Bo Rinehart of NEEDTOBREATHE, and “I Won’t Let You Go,” featuring Vince Gill.
The latter isn’t just a standout on the album, it may well be a career song for Nail. For those who love the St. Louis native for songs like the emotive ballad “Sound Of A Million Dreams” or the nostalgic “Half Mile Hill,” “I Won’t Let You Go” is the song that hits square in the chest. The song describes Nail’s marriage: not perfect, not easy, but always worth fighting for. “I know that this is hard to do / you loving me, me loving you / so long since we have felt brand new / but I won’t let you go,” Nail and Gill sing. “Hell, I even hate myself sometimes,” Nail adds in the second verse, a line that could, given context, be coming from either him or his wife. Regardless, it’s stark; these are things that many find hard to relate to a confidant, let alone their partner, or the world.
Another standout, both in writing and vocal delivery, is “Home,” which features co-writer Lori McKenna. Like “I Won’t Let You Go,” the song begins with a minute-plus long instrumental, which feels less like the intro to a commercial song and more like a movie score. “Home” settles into a nostalgic look at one’s roots – it’s poignant, but not overdone. “And you think it will forget you when you go but you know it’ll take you back in,” they sing in the chorus.
The album is produced by Frank Liddell, with Chuck Ainlay and Glenn Worf joining him in production for a little over half the tracks. Liddell & Co. have a tough job – Nail’s such a fine vocalist that half their task is finding the right way to get out of the way. On songs like “Good At Tonight,” for instance, the production can feel a bit overpowering, like too many celebrity cooks and not enough sous chefs in the kitchen.
That said, there’s a subtler masterpiece being built by Nail’s production team: that of consistency. Nail’s voice is both top-notch and bears a fingerprint, which sets his songs apart as recognizable from the vocal alone. But the beauty of Liddell, Ainlay, and Worf’s work, which has graced all of Nail’s repertoire, goes further. The tasteful inclusion of an haunting pedal steel, the lightness of the percussion, the tone of the electrics, and the treatment of the music as a supporting and not leading role are central to Nail’s music. When they’re combined, it’s akin to that scene in the animated film Ratatouille, when a bite of cheese yields yellow bursts in the protagonist rat’s imagination, a strawberry conjures a red swirl, and the two together are symphonic. So too is this pairing: musically divine.
Preview below and grab Fighter on iTunes.