Buffalo Nichols review: exploring misery with luscious delivery

Buffalo Nichols leaning against a wall

Buffalo Nichols was born in Houston and raised in Milwaukee. He performed in church and multiple local bar bands, but it took leaving the United States to understand his true musical direction. In West Africa and Europe, Nichols saw how Black folkways could be modernised and appreciated in the present day. He wanted “more Black people to hear themselves in this music that is truly theirs.” Embracing the blues as a contemporary form resulted in his debut album, Buffalo Nichols.

Buffalo Nichols leaning against a wall

Feeling stressed? The gentle fingerpicking and slide guitar of Lost and Lonesome will calm you down even before Nichols lush vocal enters the mix. The song is soothing to the extent that there’s cognitive dissonance in realising that it’s about the negative impact of isolation and betrayal. There’s hope in yearning to love again, but we’re left with a sombre sense of an endless, fruitless quest.

Living Hell is quite a chaser, shocking us out of complacency: “there’s police and crooks and they’re the same to me/that’s why they say you’ll either end up dead or in jail…will I die and go to heaven or keep living in hell?” A toe-tapping beat drives the powerful song ever onward as Nichols interrogates spirituality and reality.

Sick Bed Blues unifies the styles of its predecessors on the record, harnessing blues repetition, lyrics of misery and alienation, and a picked up pace.

These Things sounds like a sincere love song even when Nichols sweetly sings of telling “the sweetest lies.” Here, lies are both protective and something to protect a loved one from. The instrumentation is hopeful but the narrative leads to loss and grief, with emotions and memories the only tangible things left.

The next track is built around the hook “the way you hurt me showed me how to love,” detailing a doomed relationship that provided emotional awakening and then clarity about a cyclical pattern of toxic relationships.

Another Man Is Dead addresses systemic racism head on. If “another man is dead/they put a bullet in his head” wasn’t clear enough for you, Nichols deftly describes the reality of ‘progress’: “they’d hang you from a bridge downtown/now they call it stand your ground…it might as well be 1910/killing women, killing men.” After sharing a terrifying personal police experience, the final lyric is a showstopper: “no need to hide behind a white hood when a badge works just as good/another man is dead.”

Cymbals crash as Back On Tops penniless troubadour fantasises about living the high life from the proceeds of singing the blues: “ain’t enough to pay your rent, may as well spend every cent…for just one night we gonna be on top again.” Evidently the protagonist’s partner isn’t convinced; she’s still sobbing from finding out that the last paycheck was also blown on a good night out.

The record ends with extrapolation of a killer lyric: “I was singing the blues, living life like a country song.” The narrator chooses hedonism over love and leans into loneliness. On repeat, this leads you seamlessly back to the solitude of Lost and Lonesome again.

Buffalo Nichols is a self-assured and insightful debut that handles introspection and unflinching social commentary equally well.

Buffalo Nichols by Buffalo Nichols is out now on Fat Possum Records.