Last year American singer Marissa Nadler found herself in the unenvied position of being without a record company after being dropped by Mexican Summer. As a result her fifth, eponymous album has been released on her own label courtesy of the worthy Kickstarter project, a platform whereby fans pledge funds to enable artists to see their creative projects come to fruition. The music itself builds on the marked progression offered by her 2009 album Little Hells. Her sumptuous, utterly untainted vocals once again dominate proceedings although to concentrate exclusively on these would be to ignore the strong songwriting which underpins the album.
The album sees a succession of warm, hushed acoustic guitar textures provide an accommodating bed in which Nadler’s flawless vocals can rest. The hazy sound and crepuscular feel to parts of the album recall fellow vocalist Hope Sandoval, or occasionally a more fragile and more gothic Cat Power.
The album opens with In Your Lair, Bear which contains delicately picked guitar lines that encircle the alluring vocals. The ethereal Alabaster Queen sees Nadler at her most vulnerable and introspective, as she repeatedly promises that “I’ll be your alabaster queen”. It is wistful, poignant and a song of undoubted beauty. It is also the first example of many on the album where female figures populate the lyrics of the song. In this case Nadler sings in the first person, subsequent tracks see additional, named characters introduced.
The Sun Always Reminds Me Of You is another personal tale of a lost relationship as well as being the most immediate, accessible track on the album. The radiant guitar playing and captivating vocal melody betray the sad subject matter. Nadler may sing of there being “nothing but love songs on the radio” but under the surface there is melancholy and regret. The track plays out suitably to a bittersweet pedal steel guitar refrain.
Baby, I Will Leave You In The Morning is another stripped down, powerful meditation on a relationship headed in a downward spiral. It sees her pleading “you will need to forgive me, I’ve been a sinner all my life you see” as the overall mood closes in and darkens.
Some of Nadler’s vocals are still shrouded in reverb, a trait that has been a consistent presence in her music over the years. There are moments on this album however where her voice rises above the surface, coming across as even more stark and confessional. The understated drama of Puppet Master provides an example of this, the track also benefitting from the beams of light that fall down on to the shifting tempos.
The second half of the album sees no dip in quality. Wedding is a pale and ghostly lament, In A Magazine features some of her most precisely enunciated lines and the final track Daisy, Where Did You Go sees her deliver some of her most spine-tingling lyrics over a spectral, folky guitar line. “Daisy, where did you go, with your phantom limbs and eerie hymns, there are two of us here that I know”. The song is rich in symbolism and the mention of “eerie hymns” seems a particularly appropriate label for the album in general.
The album may be constructed from the barest of components, namely acoustic guitar and her voice, (there is no piano or organ as featured on Little Hells) but these are employed so judiciously that anything else added would be superfluous. The independence and freedom afforded by the circumstances of its creation seem to be mirrored in the quiet confidence of the album. It is a collection of songs from an artist approaching the peak of her powers and although it may be downcast and sombre in places this cannot stop it from being a paradoxically engaging and uplifting listen.