Marissa Nadler’s Haunting New Album Could Be Her Best

by delarue

Over the years Marissa Nadler has carved out a deep niche as a purveyor of allusively menacing, atmospheric Nashville gothic rock songs which lean more toward the gothic than to Nashville. Her most recent, self-titled album from last year found her embracing Americana closer than ever, with rewarding results. Her new one, The Sister, reverts to the chilly High Romantic art-rock angst of her 2004 cult classic Ballads of Living and Dying, with a similarly minimalist yet envelopingly ambient sweep. It’s the best thing she’s done since then and it might be the best thing she’s ever done, end of story. Her breathy, expectant voice conveys both apprehension and a resolute, sometimes resigned stoicism. The instrumentation here typically begins spare and severe and builds from there, with echoey layers of vocals set to nimbly fingerpicked acoustic guitar drenched in almost as much reverb as Nadler’s voice, fleshed out with lush washes of synthesizer that add a nebulous Pink Floyd orchestral majesty.

Nadler never hits anything head on: she makes the listener figure out what’s going on via a painterly parade of images. The chilling opening track, The Wrecking Ball Company is loaded with them: “You said you’d leave the wrecking ball to break the cement ’round the heart, the company of mad machines,” she intones somberly. As the song rises and the story of the forsaken woman unwinds, the synth looms in, cold and inescapable. Building from a skeletal classical piano intro and distantly ominous vocalese, Love Again, There is a Fire slowly reveals a woman’s fate, as “Yellow lights and amber clouded over pretty skies, ember after ember.” Likewise, Christine, a deftly fingerpicked twelve-string guitar tune ponders “Some silhouette stuck in the town in between…the sea will surround you,” Nadler insists, as the keyboards make a tidal pool behind her.

Apostle is the closest thing to country here, with the occasional quietly dramatic whoosh of cymbals behind the brooding, deadpan ambience, a bitter tale of dissolution and despair. She follows that with Constantine, a distantly bitter but coyly humorous tale of life on the road and then To a Road, Love, which could be U2 if Nadler decided to flesh out the anthemic changes instead of keeping them terse and simple: when the interlude at the end, with the stark cello, ringing twelve-string and soaring, choir-like synth comes in, the effect is nothing short of magical.

The catchiest, and angriest song here is In a Little Town, a quiet but emotionally searing memoir of childhood and loss in a backwater where you “studied to appease,” or by implication, faced the consequences. The final track is the Siouxsie-esque Your Heart Is a Twisted Vine, Nadler’s voice interpolated within rising and falling, dreampop-flavored washes of electric guitar. There have been so many good albums released this year – who said that the album as art form is dead, huh? – that trying to pick a favorite is like shooting fish in a barrel. But this is the best of the dark ones. Pretty much what you’d expect from an artist who chose the URL songsoftheend when she first put her songs up on myspace all those years ago.

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