(Box of Cedar; 2011)
By Jordan Cronk | 17 August 2011
One thing Marissa Nadler’s fifth full-length can’t be accused of is false advertising. If anything, it largely delivers what one would expect from a Marissa Nadler album, though not necessarily at this point in her career. Nadler’s last album, the wonderful, unexpectedly far-reaching Little Hells found the Boston-based songstress occasionally experimenting with a synthetic dream-pop aesthetic in the lineage of Kate Bush or the Cocteau Twins, alongside her more typical forays in acoustic, séance-worthy folk. It’s a restless record, and still her best from my vantage, but it also seemed to hint at Nadler’s ambition to step outside her chosen idiom. By evidence of her new, mostly fan-funded self-titled effort, however, these moves may have been more diversion than groundwork. Her robust production sense and vivid songwriting imagery continue to advance, but musically she’s reverted to her most intrinsic state, deploying eleven commanding tracks that, in every sense save perhaps sonic depth, could have flowered at any point in her career.
In that sense the record’s self-titled nature is a most accurate description: as a reconciliation of her most innate stylistic tendencies it’s a beautiful realization of her skills as an arranger and songwriter. Nadler subtly nudges at the contours of her melodies, stretching tracks across a more expansive backdrop than ever before, with strings, keys, vibraphone, slide guitar, cello, and light percussion coloring the mix with a rose-tinted atmosphere of longing and conflicted devotion. Vast yet understated opener “In Your Lair, Bear” unassumingly builds alongside lyrics which could conceivably define Nadler’s own artistic muse, as she meditatively describes “That old familiar fear” which “Creeps up your little arms / And runs through your veins / Like blood through your songs.” She later conflates her process with the pain of emotional liberation, casting her two characters at the brink of destruction. “So I took you home and I crashed you / A hurricane in your veins,” she pitilessly intones atop the track’s plaintive crescendo. In six riveting minutes Nadler concentrates her thematic sweep into perhaps her strongest opening gambit yet.
Continuing to expertly hone this approach across the remainder of the record, Nadler digs deep into an instrumental artillery that reads on paper as numbingly traditional but in execution is accomplished and occasionally even eye-opening. In a genre so easily given over to sparse, uninteresting instrumental rumination, Nadler’s fortification of folk-rock as an ornate, sensuous experience is particularly satisfying. The mournful vibraphone and synth cries throughout “Wedding” are haunting, belying Nadler’s hopeful pleas of “Give me a chance / I’ll make you a ring / And we’ll fly to our wedding.” Elsewhere there’s “Puppet Master,” perhaps the record’s most structurally ambitious track, which begins as a light shuffle between acoustic guitar, lightly skipping percussion, and resonant synth-bass before pulling the reins to descend into a waltz-time chorus wherein Nadler submits to her titular master with this vaguely disquieting series of couplets: “Lately all I want is you / Sometimes I believe I do / Fifty strings of yarn and glue / Puppet Master see me through.”
Nadler offsets some of these winding, complex pieces with a couple of shorter, more melodic tracks (“Alabaster Queen,” “In a Magazine”) and even a deceptively sunny number (“The Sun Always Reminds Me of You”) which outlines it’s surrogate character’s attempt to “Cover up what I done,” but who instead keeps finding remnants of a relationship in the everyday. Nadler’s occasionally obtuse lyrical flights are mostly grounded across this record, marking it again as an extremely personal work. The fact that she’s playing off her instincts in lieu of advancing on some of her recent work’s more outwardly progressive traits, however, will likewise mark this as a quintessential careerist record. By dint of the album’s very existence, its obvious Nadler has the fans to keep her working regardless of label facilitation, and it’s not likely this will disappoint a single one of those generous enough to help get this project off the ground. In other words, she may remain an intimate, closely held artist for a certain sect of listeners, but by any standards hers is some powerful, accomplished songwriting—and in many ways Marissa Nadler epitomizes this ever-maturing skill more lucidly than any of her prior work.