Marissa Nadler

Songs III: Bird on the Water

(Peacefrog; 2007)

By Chet Betz | 7 November 2007

Greenwald beat me to the punch in talking about "Diamond Heart," one of the most bracing openers 2007's yet heard. Those of us familiar with Marissa Nadler knew that she could sing the lights out and could craft some gothic folk to drift on through the dark, but I don't think we were quite ready for a song like this one. Nadler kicks it up a notch. We're talking the upside from, like, Shawn Colvin all the way to bard laureate Leonard Cohen, whom she covers effectively on "Famous Blue Raincoat" and whom she references with her album title. Greenwald semi-accuses the Espers' Greg Weeks of making the other songs on Bird on the Water sound "shrouded in grey gloom and strange freak-folk fog" (and told me he finds the approach "alien"); I agree, but love it, but also concede that "Diamond Heart" is the "angel in that mist." Some songs have an inherent beauty that borders on the supernatural, and this opener is one such song. Nadler and Weeks were wise to let it go proudly bare. Nadler's three and four-tiered melodic progression must satisfy the Golden Rule, her poetry is pure Cohenette ("I had a man in every town / but I thought of you each time I tore off my gown"), and her voice is a womb that a hundred hipsters would crawl into if only they could. I'm at their heels.

It's not like Weeks is sitting on his ass, though. He mics the song with magic, keeping Nadler's Fahey-esque picking and silt mezzo-soprano intimate while also letting them pass through some air, giving off an impression of the ambiance that he later literalizes with wonky electric solos and weird organs. And I'm sorry, really, but I love that shit, too. The industrial noises clanging in the distance of "Dying Breed" may seem superfluous, but when Nadler lowers the arpeggio, the meshed effect chills; there's nothing wrong with folk that has some texture to it, right? On occasion Nadler has expressed dissatisfaction with the aesthetic of her prior albums; if Weeks is helping her achieve a merge between her professed songwriting influences (Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, and the LC, course) and her sonic fetishes ("space folk and space rock") then more power to the collaboration. To my ears the multi-tracked electric guitar slow-scorchers that eat up stratosphere on "Bird on Your Grave" take the song to a whole new level. Space level, what.

Still, all of these songs are of a slow tempo and velvet cloth, and all of them are steeped in a gentle melancholy, so, yes: it is all a little monotonous and predictable. Yes, Nadler sometimes plays the siren with a chorus of Nadlers, and on "Feathers" some strings chiaroscuro it up while she says "thee" a lot. She even repeats "with eyes as deep as brandywine," which I'm pretty sure means less than nothing no matter how nice it sounds when dripping off that voice. "Silvia" is supposedly a tribute to an amalgamation of women whom Nadler admires including Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and, look out, Diane Arbus. Marissa once made a song from Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabelle Lee." You can almost guess what she likes for breakfast. The peas-in-a-pod list of inspirations isn't that much of a bother, really, but it'd be nice to get thrown for a loop every once and a while. Have Jaco Pastorius play bass on a track or something.

Nadler to The Boston Globe's James Reed after claiming to love "Hips Don't Lie" by Shakira: "Does that surprise you?"

Reed writes, "Even if it doesn't, secretly Nadler expects that it will."

So, then, Nadler's music flirts with shtick and her poetry with antiquated affectations, and all of it together stands on the brink of being artificial and played out. Why it's not: because her vocal talent's enthralling; because Nadler's a complete natural in the setting that she constructs, to the point where I might even doubt it's a construction so much as her most straightforward expression; because art's always risky when given over so fully to the voice of one artist, and the risk can have a pretty high pay-off. The pay-off here is that, for all of her obviousness, Marissa Nadler makes Marissa Nadler albums; as she comes closer to bridging her songwriting with her desired sonic aura, a "Marissa Nadler album" is starting to mean something.