One of the real dangers of writing about music, particularly new music, is that it’s very easy to get too excited about new artists too soon. You could make a sizable box set out of the debut albums that garnered critical acclaim only to fade into obscurity a few short years later. In this hype-driven environment, it’s a rare occasion when an artist is allowed to develop their craft and deliver on the promise that many writers see and some mistake for immediate greatness. If there was ever an argument against the hype cycle and for real, honest-to-goodness artistic development, it’s in Marissa Nadler’s July. It’s an assured, confident album from an artist who has been promising such a statement for some time.
Nadler’s work has always toed the line between acoustic folk and dream pop, finding a comfortable space between Joni Mitchell and Mazzy Star (if you really want to get reductive about it). Nadler’s voice, which always had enough strength to balance out its ethereal qualities, has always been her greatest asset, and it deservedly takes center stage on July. This time around, though, Nadler is exploring darker territory than on her previous albums. The multi-tracked voices that accompany Nadler throughout July give songs like “Drive” and “Anyone Else” a darker edge to go with their dreaminess, which makes for an unsettling listening experience. Indeed, that seems to be Nadler’s purpose on July; not only is she fulfilling years of potential here, she’s successfully turning our perception of her work on its head.
Nadler’s album comes at a time when the likes of Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten and Emily Jane White are all working in similar artistic veins. (It’s not surprising, then, that Nadler has collaborated with two of those three artists.) What sets Nadler apart from her contemporaries on July is her gifts for arranging, which also do their part in saving the album from being a flop. A mournful, glacially-paced album at its core, July is the sort of collection of songs that would become grating if recorded as a spare, empty acoustic album. It would be a mildly interesting anti-folk record that listeners would forget about in a few weeks. Fortunately, that’s not the album Nadler wanted to make, and it’s not what July is. While Nadler’s acoustic guitar creates the backbone of each song here, tastefully-applied string parts and synthesizers add depth to Nadler’s compositions, giving July a sweeping, enveloping feeling that so many artists wish they could create.
It’s very likely that we’ll hear more from Marissa Nadler in the future, but July still feels like an important record for her, one where everything seemed to come together the right way. It’s only fair that her resourcefulness and resilience have paid off the way they do here. What could have been an album that merely showed more unfulfilled promise ended up being a triumph and one of 2014’s best albums so far. It’s very rare that an artist present a statement so definitive as July, but given who it’s coming from, this album’s transcendence is far from surprising.