Nina Nastasia’s explores roughly the same musical territory as Cat Power and Lisa Germano, searching for the emotional power that may lie in lurching, ponderous tempos and spare, spacious arrangements, which often feature menacing, oppressive string arrangements (reminiscent of Kristen Hersh’s similar experiments on Hips and Makers and Strings) successful at least in their avoiding weepy sentimentality. While Nastasia lacks Chan Marshall’s showcase voice, she also avoids the melodramatic whispering and whining into which Germano frequently lapses. Nastasia’s vocals are a bit non-descript, but in a good way; they are supple and unobtrusive, even if she does occasionally sound a little like Lisa Loeb.
Run to Ruin clocks in at just over 30 minutes, an apt length considering the attention required to listen to songs in this lugubrious style. The album explores the obligatory themes of ambiguous relationships (“You Her and Me”), obsessive and destructive love (“The Body”), and drug addiction (“Regrets”), suggesting the connections between them through the songs’ contiguity. While the songs often build to musical climaxes, as in “I Say That I Will Go”, her elliptical lyrics tend toward inscrutability at times. On the opening track, “We Never Talked”, which refers to “a thing we witnessed” and a mysterious “job” whose nature is never specified, the music is always expressive enough to fill in the gaps, making specificity seem beside the point. In fact, the songs suffer when the details become too precise. References to “dad” and to a “drive to the beach” seem jarringly mundane in the spooky context supplied by the music; much better is the opaque, haiku-like “When We Talk”: “Talking cake crumbs move toward the edges of your mouth and fleck off in all directions/ All I see: Flying bits. I begin to count them”. A concrete moment is rendered without heavy-handed gestures pointing out its significance; thus, listeners are entrusted to find it important in a way specific to themselves, and are expected to take an active role in fashioning out of Nastasia’s work a meaningful experience.
Steve Albini’s production furthers this end — his aggressive handling of drum sounds, similar to his work on PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, prevents listeners from relaxing, refusing to permit the album to become background music. The bass drum booms like distant cannon fire; the brittle cymbals and snares crackle like paper being crumpled in one’s ear. Frequently, sputtering rolls or invasive rattles undermine the natural rhythms, laying emphasis in unexpected places, subverting the usual purposes of percussion. On “Regrets” this tactic is especially striking, threatening to overwhelm the track altogether. Listeners might suspect some of the disjointed, over-amplified sounds were tossed-in randomly if they weren’t so effective at jolting and alienating them. Every effort appears to be made to shake them out of a groove rather than allow them to settle into one. The balance of instruments in the mix works the same way: it calls attention to itself, making it impossible to ignore the process by which the music was assembled. Albini and Nastasia seem to have embraced the rather radical notion that a passive listener is an unappreciative and worthless one.
In this regard, Run to Ruin resembles Brechtian theatre (though you won’t mistake it for Kurt Weill): by exposing the production devices and disrupting easy identification, Albini and Nastasia force intellectual engagement rather than mere reflexive emotional connection. Since expecting intelligence from the pop music masses is close to commercial suicide, special plaudits should be given Nastasia for her courage, and for her apparent unwillingness to negotiate comfortable compromises with a potentially larger audience. Also laudable is the implicit assumption that one is capable of feeling via the mind; that thought and feeling, rather than being mutually exclusive, can be fortuitously fused. Nastasia’s songs won’t stick in one’s head, and they won’t constitute some kind of ego-buoying mood music to be the soundtrack of one’s life; but they will, if one pays attention, offer rewarding glimpses into a languid purgatory of ceaseless rumination, where decisions seem suspended, the causal chain broken; and music affords no solace, but constant prodding, urging one to reconsider yet again the stalemates into which we all, at one time or another, maneuver. In other words, this is not party music, unless it is a very lonely party of one.