Listening to Marissa Nadler has always been kind of like getting lost in a house of mirrors — it can be creepy or dreamlike, jarring or revelatory. She’s in the sweet spot between freak folk and dream pop, plucking her guitar strings and beckoning you to follow her siren-like voice into an underworld of sorrow and regret. Few artists are better for encouraging you to exorcise your own demons, or helping you feel less alone in the process.
On her latest album, Nadler chronicles what is surely the coldest July on record. This isn’t an of-the-moment piece of art; rather, it’s a few steps removed, memories recalled much later, after Nadler has had the chance to make more sense of them. In “Firecrackers”, she sings, “July fourth of last year we spilled all the blood/ How’d you spend your summer days?/ I know better now, I don’t call you up at night/ ‘cause baby you’re a ghost and I have changed.” The brevity and calm with which she describes her most heart-wrenching experiences remains a constant throughout July, and at times the understated pain and turmoil can be enough to knock the wind right out of you, leaving you ready to breathe in new life.
This is Nadler’s sixth studio album, and while she’s veered from her standard sound on a few occasions throughout her decade-long career (most notably on 2009’s Little Hells), she doesn’t attempt too much of that here. Why fix something that’s not broken? Her acoustic guitar, piano, layered vocals, and reverb-laden production make for the perfect vehicle for this sad tale of midsummer chaos. But there’s an element of hope here, too, as though Nadler is banking on the fact that once she commits all of these painful experiences to song, they’ll stop haunting her quite so badly. The listening process becomes voyeuristic, making it all the more compelling.
“Dead City Emily” is the darkest of the dark here, with all of the heaviness of a July heat wave and the deserted city that ensues as residents flee to the beach. “I was coming apart those days,” Nadler sings, praising a friend who helped her during some of the worst times. “Any other man would have run, run away/ Emily was something more.” Guitar notes intertwine with synths to create an echoing, barren landscape. You can almost see the brown grass, the dogs panting heavily on street corners with their long pink tongues hanging out. The introduction of Emily rounds out the cast of the album and fleshes out the narrative, providing a fuller picture of the fallout after Nadler and her ex ruined each other’s Independence Day.
Her first on Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones Records, July might be Nadler’s most cohesive and focused record yet. While she’s always traded in songs about loss, this latest work’s greatest strength is that it’s deep and as rich as a memoir for those ready to tease out all the threads, thanks in part to producer Randall Dunn, whose experience with heavy, burrowing acts like Sunn O))) and Earth lends a hazy depth to Nadler’s lighter arrangements. “Maybe it’s the weather, but I got nothing in my heart,” Nadler sings on “Nothing In My Heart”, the simple album closer backed by muted piano chords. She sounds resigned to her fate, matter-of-fact. After the emotional excavation that she’s performed on the rest of the album, this is an understandable state. It’s open-ended, a kind of “To Be Continued” title card.
One evening when I was a sophomore in college, a particularly poetic senior boy I had an intense and unrequited crush on played Marissa Nadler to break the silence while we worked at the campus writing center, waiting for students to drop by with their term papers on Jane Austen. It was just the two of us, on a Sunday evening in a small brick house converted into classrooms and offices on a small Midwestern campus, and as I heard the opening strains of “Diamond Heart” for the first time, Nadler’s voice felt like that of someone I already knew. “You can listen to it all day and never get sick of it,” Senior Boy said, and as I incorporated Nadler into the soundtrack of my own life in the months and years to come, I found that to be true. While this might seem like a backhanded way to praise an artist, there’s something to be said for the power of a musician who can consistently draw you in, to make you feel as though you’ve never quite uncovered all the layers. July does this, and more. It will take a very, very long time to get sick of.
Essential Tracks: “Firecrackers”, “Dead City Emily”, and “Nothing in My Heart”