“Was it all a dream?” Marissa Nadler asks in “Constantine”, the sad mini-tale of a former rock star who spent his most successful years in a codeine-inflicted haze. “As time goes by, I hear your voice is near.” She yearns for a time before the addiction had taken its toll, for years that he may no longer remember.
Put out on her own Box of Cedar label, The Sister is positioned as a sequel of sorts—or the “sister album,” as Nadler puts it—to last year’s self-titled record. It’s a little less adventurous, musically, than her last, which played a bit more with dreampop and country, but genre experimentation isn’t her focus here. The Sister is relatively stark: Nadler is occasionally joined by subtle backup singing or a flourish of percussion, but we’re primarily treated to her voice with nominal accompaniment—and that’s not entirely a bad thing.
Through her six full-length albums, Nadler has shown she has a special gift for crafting portraits within her songs. Five of The Sister‘s eight songs are about a clearly defined character. In addition to the burnout rock singer of “Constantine”, there’s the sad soul of “Christine” (“I find you deep inside your den/a home to your bones, and then/escort you to court you but you’re firmly dying, instead”). In the past, overemphasized instrumentals might have distracted from the figure central to “Love Again, There Is a Fire” (“Mary, Mary, never died/like we thought she would”), but here there’s only a subtle piano supplementing her words. With its feet firmly planted in the minimalist end of the folk pool, this album gives Nadler’s lyrics extra room to stretch out and breathe, and her sorrowful characters have the opportunity to come to life.
In the end, it’s a bit disappointing to see her regress from the bold moves she made on 2011’s Marissa Nadler, but it seems to be the trade-off we’ve made for The Sister‘s lyrical clarity. Maybe next time she’ll be able to pull off both at the same time.
Essential Tracks: “Constantine”, “Love Again, There Is a Fire”