Marissa Nadler‘s first record, 2004’s Ballads of Living and Dying, could describe all of her work, since she strives to capture the finer details of distress while keeping central the idea that to truly live is to daily die. Nadler’s work has mainly surveyed struggle, sometimes her own, as on “Diamond Heart”, or others, like Virginia Woolf’s on “Virginia”, and her very unique voice is well-placed to search out the nooks of the shattered human spirit.
There is an air of melancholy that cloaks her work, from The Saga of Mayflower May (2005) to Songs III: Bird on the Water (2007) to Little Hells (2009), and her self-titled record is no exception. Other interesting musicians like Josephine Foster, Sharon Van Etten, and Joanna Newsom spring to mind when thinking of Nadler; she shares a common ground with Foster on the way she channels others’ work, old poets, and old stories; Van Etten because of the soaring, passionate delivery; and Newsom in terms of her beautiful vocal oddity, often sounding as if she is holding words in her mouth, where they frolic, bobbing around until she releases them to the sky.
This record is a masterclass by someone in control of a talent that threatens to overwhelm, but there is something lighter here than in previous outings, even though she still trawls the half-lit streets of American Gothic, and her regretful tone about ghosts of the heart remains present throughout. However, “In Your Lair, Bear” is positively radiant, drawing you in with her finger-picked guitar and her eerie, timeless vocals, creating a beguiling sense of true intimacy. The effect is quietly devastating, and lasts for six minutes, going to unexpected places with searing strings and haunting reverb that reveal a very modern kind of folk.
“Alabaster Queen” is a yearning tune with a glassy-sounding keyboard and a lush soundscape that sounds as if it were recorded outside, as if you can hear a whistling in the low hung trees. In fact, nature swirls around on this record like another kind of narrator, like the sad old dirt paths in “The Sun Always Reminds Me of You”, and there is always a sense of place that she gives her songs, bringing you back over records and experiences. “Mr. John Lee Revisited” refers back to the “Mr. John Lee” of The Saga of Mayflower May. Time has not healed; in fact, the wounds are now worse because they haunt, yet the warm lilting guitar brings an air of insistent hope.
“Baby, I Will Leave You in the Morning” has an Angelo Badalementi feel, with Nadler creating a sense of dark inevitability around a story about loss. We have heard such stories before, but the arrangement makes it seem especially epic, which, at its heart, it really is. It shows another side to Nadler: a tougher, more direct (but no less poetic) side that recalls Fleetwood Mac-era Stevie Nicks, a reference point also conjured by “Puppet Master”, along with a look back to the Incredible String Band.
There is a strangely eerie take on the ’80s ballad on “Wedding”, which is as unsettling as it is full of warmth, but that seems to be part of her point: to never get too comfortable. Her searching nature takes in everything from collaborating with black metal musician Xasthur to working with Espers, arranging Poe to music (“Annabelle Lee”), setting up her own imprint Box of Cedar Records, to funding this record with her fans through the Kickstart project. On “Wind Up Doll”, she sings of a woman who “will never be what you want her to be,” and we must be thankful for that.