If you’ve never heard a Marissa Nadler album before, this forthcoming paragraph is all you need to know. She has a simultaneously strong and reserved voice that lends itself to descriptions such as “ghostly”, “atmospheric”, “wintry”, or “uses her voice like an instrument”. Her songs are musically sparse, and while often the first thing I think of is Grouper in comparison, Marissa Nadler’s songs are much more potent; patently bleaker (2014’s July opened with the charming “If you ain’t made it now, you’re never going to make it”); downright apocalyptic. She’s the sort of artist that you couldn’t imagine ever making a bad album, and her newest is more proof.
That being said, a key distinguishing factor between Strangers and her last release is the presence of drums on half the tracks. As Nadler’s language is mostly monochromatic, the drum help nudge the album forward; her very own John Wesley Harding. There’s an emphasis on heavier guitars this time around, to which neither Nadler nor returning producer Randall Dunn are strangers (hah). Nadler has collaborated with black metal artists like Xasthur, while Dunn’s resume includes Sunn O))) and Earth.
Whereas July’s lead single took us through an internal diatribe while driving through the rain-hammered city, Strangers’ lead single, “Janie in Love” is much more outward. The lyrics seem to be a response to Neko Case’s “This Tornado Loves You”: “You’re a natural disaster / and I am watching you blow up everything”, with Nadler expertly moving her voice to a lower register to bring out the melody in that last line (“And I am…”; “…everything”). Meanwhile, the choruses simply explode, with feedback drenching the cries of the title’s word as the drums continue their onward-pound.
Understandably, her music does get wearying; not enough light, not enough color (she really loves this black and white aesthetic, and I’m not just talking about her album covers). That sort of criticism was served to more popular folkies like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy post-I See a Darkness, the Mountain Goats during the post-Sunset Tree and pre-Transcendental Youth lull, and what Sun Kil Moon was serving between the years 2005 and 2012. As such, Strangers could be shortened from a 45-minute album into a brisker 40-minute package by removing “Drivers of the Dust” (and letting “Katie I Know”’s “People leave faster than they come” open the album) and “Nothing Feels the Same” (whose choruses feel a bit rote, especially lyrically; thank the drummer for saving them).
Other highlights include the ghost-orchestra of “Katie I Know”, the gradual crescendo of “Skyscraper”, the funereal horns in the back half of “Waking”, and the moment of vocal purity where she stretches out the word “woods” in the plaintive and pretty closer. The centerpiece track is “Hungry is the Ghost,” where many of these moments can be found on the same song, but with an added guitar providing a pulsing rhythm throughout and a keyboard line (such as at the 2:24 mark) providing a melodic component to contrast with the growling feedback of the song.