With each album release this year it is becoming ever clearer how being locked down in a pandemic can lead to periods of intense creativity. In new music the responses seem to fall into two camps – the group that revel in nature and birdsong, and those hunkered down in their rooms for some serious creating.
Marissa Nadler falls into the latter category, for she has spent a long time watching TV. Nothing remarkable there you might think, but her choices were decidedly retrospective, taking her back to the Unsolved Mysteries series of programmes. She became captivated with stories of Alcatraz escapees, ghostly visions and disappearing hijackers, and with the passing episodes she noticed a number of correlations with events in her own life. Soon she was documenting her responses in song, and the resulting 11-track album is arguably her most compelling yet.
Its storytelling stands out time and time again, with each song taking the listener through a beautifully crafted short story. Bessie, Did You Make It? is the first, and over a gently lapping guitar the singer takes a new slant to the murder ballad. With an expansive backdrop she tells of how “it took 26 full days to find the heart of the maze, deep in the canyon they were swallowed”. The mystery deepens. “Did you make it on your own, or did you fake it?” she wonders. Couldn’t Have Done The Killing tells an equally gripping tale. “Leave your weapons at the door”, she proclaims, “I’m not your killer anymore.”
Nadler’s vocal delivery is measured and the accompanying instrumentation responds in kind. If I Could Breathe Underwater is a beauty, swept up in the current and making mysterious harmonic turns under the singer’s pure voice. “I thought I saw you floating away,” she sings evocatively, as the music follows suit, elusive to the end. Elegy makes a less questioning and much more serene progress, leaving the listener rapt at its effortless focus.
The songwriting is impressively consistent. Like its subjects, The Path Of The Clouds makes surefooted progress across the sky, telling as it goes the unique story of legendary aeroplane hijacker DB Cooper. Nadler catches the mystery at the heart of the tale but through eyes of wonder, recognising the crime but wondering how the subject maintained his remarkable focus. This ‘What if?’ keeps the listener hooked, as does Well, Sometimes You Just Can’t Stay, which considers what might have happened to the only successful escapees from Alcatraz.
Seasoned followers of Nadler will not be surprised by her ability to spin these yarns through song, but they will surely be taken by the concentration and intensity applied. The music may be slow, its phrases carefully considered, but the sharp focus never lets up as the singer becomes hooked by what she sees onscreen. That would be the only slight criticism, Nadler dealing throughout in slow music – but these concerns are extinguished by the power of the pictures she creates.
She may be nine albums in, but it is clear from her latest opus that Marissa Nadler is at the peak of her powers, giving us a work whose intensity burns brightly. Here is a set of songs that keep their head while all around are losing theirs. The more you listen, the more you fall under their spell, just as you would want from your next box set craze.