When Nadler uses the talent of backing band Espers, Songs III shines. Unfortunately, she doesn't use them nearly enough.
Now three albums into here career, Marissa Nadler knows what she does best. Songs III: Bird on the Water is not unlike its predecessors. It's an album soaked in gothic imagery and leaden sadness, with dead and dying friends, absent lovers, empty rooms. Backed here by Philadelphia folk outfit Espers, Nadler and producer Greg Weeks (also a member of Espers) try to infuse Songs III with a cold, spacey sound, and sometimes it works. One can imagine seeing Nadler's breath on the air as she sings these songs in her reed-thin voice. Still, despite being supported by a talented band, the album often sounds like Nadler is on her own.
Sometimes, that solitary sound is exactly what these songs need. "Diamond Heart" finds Nadler (or the narrator) finding comfort in bars and strangers' beds -- elements that are infused with tension, if only because they don't seem to match up with her persona at all -- and reporting to someone far away about a father's death, about the spreading of ashes on snow. The song if full of stark yet beautiful images, and, when Nadler's voice lilts through the chorus singing "Oh my lonely diamond heart / It misses you oh so well", it sounds as earnest and heartbreaking as anything on the record.
"Dying Breed" and "Thinking of You" are also strong, slimly-orchestrated numbers that play up Nadler's vocals and her distinct gently-picked guitar style. In both songs, the restraint in her voice carries all the emotional weight, imbuing these lost love tails with a melancholy, lonesome quality that overly emotive vocals couldn't possibly earn.
Unfortunately for Nadler, she plays that same note far too much on this record. While her voice is distinct, and often beautiful, it doesn't have much of an emotional range. And since much of the music to be found on this record sounds the same -- Espers is painfully unused on many of these songs -- the tension that comes across in the early songs, the feeling that her voice could crack and crumble at any moment, is stripped away as the album goes on, so that when you get to a song like "Silvia", the sing-songy repetition of the title girl's name is more grating than affecting. Nadler seems to adopt a faint accent on "Rachel", or at the very least a straight-backed, nose-up quality to the vocals, that makes the song sound too arch to be grounded in the way the best stuff here is. "Famous Blue Raincoat" is a decent rendition of the Leonard Cohen tune, and Nadler seems to puff a little more body into her voice here, making the song a much needed success on the record's second half, which finds Nadler using Espers sparingly and letting her bare folk tunes all run together.
The best stuff on here sounds like a full band. "Mexican Summer" is all late-afternoon sun, and by employing all of Espers to layer the song with hazy atmosphere, we get a new take on Nadler's lonesome tales, one that veers away from her folk singer formula and into a dried-sweat, almost-country ballad. "Bird on Your Grave" has the album's loudest moment, as an actual electric guitar comes in, and the drummer leaves the brushes from "Mexican Summer" behind for some sturdier sticks. It may be the most straightforward song on the record, but it's also the most effective because it is so different from all the guitar-and-vocals fare that surrounds it.
And, in the end, maybe the problem is that Nadler knows what she's good at. Maybe she knows too well to try anything else. The sound on Songs III may be full of echo and reverb, suggesting some ongoing expansion, some big nothing carrying on to the horizon, but the scope of the album is unfortunately narrow. Employing a band like Espers should have brought something new to Nadler's brand of folk, but instead she keeps them on the sidelines, calling them in for the occasional cello note, the rare ping of a cymbal. If Marissa Nadler wanted to sound alone on this record, she succeeded. Which is too bad, because sometimes the best way to get to that high lonesome is with a little help.