[10 August 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Over her previous four albums, Marissa Nadler has proven herself one of the most promising and compelling singer-songwriters out there. Her albums have all mined a similar, ghostly brand of folk: the kind of sound that might evoke images of mist yawning off the grass on a cold morning. Sometimes her devotion to the tradition has masked her own feeling, and as hauntingly beautiful as her voice is, there were times on earlier records where it sounded more like a beauty to hide behind than one to convey her deepest emotions.
However, with her new record, she has struck out on her own and fully discovered her songwriting power. For one, she started her own label—Box of Cedar—and made this record on her own (with help from a Kickstarter campaign). More importantly, though, the mix between tradition and personality has shifted, and Nadler comes shining through on this wonderful, often deceptively uplifting record.
Much of the beauty of this record comes from Nadler’s more expansive and exploratory sound. She has always experimented with layers, but there are moments here that shape Nadler as a band leader as much as a solo performer, and that shift is exciting and often surprising. The pastoral haze of “The Sun Always Reminds Me of You” may not shock you, but the thick, effective layers of sound will. Where just an acoustic guitar sometimes renders Nadler’s rangy voice cool, here the pedal steel—first shadowing the song in the distance, then right up front in the song’s close—and the shimmering drums, warm up her voice. It’s not just about the pining Nadler’s going through—but also the love that brought on that pining. It’s a downright triumphant song, one where Nadler admits the muted joy of that hurt when someone is gone and there “ain’t nothing but love songs on the radio”.
As much as songs like this continue themes of heartache that have carried much of Nadler’s work to this point, her perspective has shifted here to something less completely melancholy. “Puppet Master” at first seems to be Nadler at her most helpless—“Puppet master, see me through,” she asks—but the shifts in the song itself plays two sides against each other. The song starts as a dusty sunburst, something almost-country, like an early Jackson Browne tune, but then it shifts to a smoky shuffle, something far moodier. It’s a playful song, one that reveals that initial helplessness to be something of a flirtatious trap. As Nadler holds control over tempo, she’s also clearly luring her subject back in. Here, her voice reflects that with its seductive lilt, and if she could hit any note she wanted before, the notable change here is her ability to now hit any emotion or tone she wants as well.
There are other departures, like the space-pop gem “Baby I Will Leave You in the Morning” or the soaring blue-light standout “Wedding”, which effectively shift the tone into something darker to contrast with the subtle light of other songs. “In a Magazine” seems at first a basic country tune, but the use of keys and pedal steel—all meshed into one sweeping sound over the track—gives the song a feeling of borderlessness that pop music can rarely achieve so effectively. Of course, under all of these shifts, Nadler is still honing the same songwriting craft she’s always been sharp at, and there are other moments that show her laid bare.
The album is bookended by “In Your Lair, Bear” and “Daisy, Where Did You Go?” respectively. Both songs feature mostly Nadler and her guitar—with some flourishes here and there—but they make an important point. The sonic changes here are no sleight of hand; they’re not meant to distract from a lack of melody or thin lyrics or anything like that. “Daisy, Where Did You Go?” is particularly striking, since her finger-picking loosens up into something buzzing and wonderful, and she paints a picture of mystery immediately as a voice wonders why Daisy was taken before her. The song begins, “There are days that I feel that something is really next to me / My arms”, and the lack of detail is troubling to say the least. It draws you in and Nadler’s voice grows whispery, more confessional, as the track moves long, and though it may be a dark end to an otherwise bittersweet record, it’s as gripping a performance as the record offers.
The eponymous title is absolutely fitting for this album. Not only is it her most accomplished set to date, but it also shows more of her—her personality and honest feelings—up in front of those impressive talents, rather than obscuring herself behind them. This is an expansive and striking collection of songs that reaches out even in its most quiet moments and, in the end, evokes plenty of melancholy—but Nadler’s greatest feat here is the way she seduces us into that world. Where early records may have found her compounding the hurt, here she carves out spaces in it to draw us in, to remind us that the only way to move past sadness is to start the process of finding joy that brought it on in the first place.