Nels Johnson - los



The songs on los evoke both the too-often neglected value of introspection—and the sadness, regret, and celebration it carries with it—and the powerful pull of allowing ourselves to be transported momentarily to gaze at the world around us and to embrace a spot of time and space filled with peace. A sharp, creative writer, he finds ways to bend real-life circumstances into occasional sensational narratives with their own dark underbelly. A winning combination showcases his solid songwriting and instrumental skills with ordinary lives who may be specific to his small-town Oregon home, but through Nel’s eyes and verse, become universal characters. The thing about this album is his voice, textured and steady, it is the glue holding the songs together. You’re not drawn to the vocals because they dominate the tracks―it’s the opposite. The vocals work because they mesh with every style within every song, an auditory illusion where two people hear different things when listening to the same sound. He folds blunt declarations into appealing songs that never strike a harsh note, from Americana epics to intimate ballads. Don’t be deceived by Nel’s gentle voice and seemingly casual delivery. He means business, extolling the joys of desire and seeking justice with the same eloquent determination. This is an essential album, one that imparts the kind of wisdom that can always be both cherished and trusted.

In his teens Nels spent several years touring with punk bands. In his early twenties he decided he needed a more stable life and studied Law and joined the corporate rat-race. For the next ten years or so he ignored his musical aspirations, then in 2016, he picked up his guitar and discovered a renewed meaning to his life. He released his debut, TAKE ME HOME, two years ago under the moniker of Nels Johnson & The Accidental Saints. It was critically acclaimed leading to this second album, released under just his own name, though some of Accidental Saints are musically involved. Haunting organ swirls open Sixteen Years. Propulsive, darkly beautiful with twists of fleeting moments and a measure of hope. Nels sings with conviction and confidence, while also exuding the kind of presence that you can imagine commanding the spotlight on a large stage. He often utilises his own ukulele and Zak Borden’s mandolin as the lead instrument, the combination is entrancing, giving him a unique sound, very much his own. Rest is a simple acoustic track that highlights a couple too busy trying to make ends meet they have little or no time for each other. He switches gears to show his poppier side on the Beatle-y Wake Me Up, with Kathryn Claire’s violin and ethereal harmonies adding a symphonic vibe to this song of aimless living just to get by.

He turns the spotlight towards immigrants struggling to earn a living on low wages in American Dream. Told in plainspoken, honest and heart-rending tones, it reminds me very much of Woody Guthrie’s Deportees (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos). Currently hosting a Ukrainian refugee family, this has resonated strongly with me, even more so with the immigration backlash that has surfaced in the UK over the past decade. Another Peace Of Mind is the sound of a deep, restorative breath being taken, of wooden instruments pushing air around a room together in real time, of middle age as a source of strength instead of crisis. A major key, great percussion, strong melodies, and lots of harmonies throughout an album that encapsulates the blend of singer-songwriter roots and punk aesthetic that is the hallmark of Nel Johnson’s sound.

October 2022