The Lead Review: Ned Raggett On Marissa Nadler's Strangers
, May 19th, 2016 15:25
Against all parental advice, Ned Raggett finds communing with Marissa Nadler's Strangers to be an acutely rewarding experience, nodding to the canon of Americana, but stepping out alone into the spotlight of a much broader and conflicted contemporary music landscape
It’s been ten years since I first encountered Marissa Nadler and her work at the sixth Terrastock Festival in the US, and to see her released efforts and reputation grow over that time has been duly rewarding. I’ll duly declare other interest upfront: five years ago she contributed to an online charity album I helped put together in the memory of a mutual friend who passed too young. Her track ‘The Breaking’ was a beautiful, sad, highlight of the whole project, her voice capturing regret, quiet mourning and more just as much as her acoustic guitar did.
So listening to Strangers, her newest album, comes with anticipation, but also expectations: when Nadler made the jump to Sacred Bones two years ago, there was a sense of stepping out further to a wider audience thanks to that label’s rapid rise in both roster and general esteem. 2014’s July, a very personal record drawing on romantic turmoil, was entrancing, stately, perhaps the most country-as-such album she’d yet recorded — but more accurately Americana or folk or whatever else the preferred term is. There was a kind of drowned elegance at work, suiting both the aesthetics of the cover art and her own already established history within the form.
Strangers takes things even further down this road, and in doing so is more rich sounding than ever before. It’s the work of an artist who one audibly hears testing and trying out new approaches while never losing sight of her strongest gifts. This has never been the easiest balance to maintain: the knife edge of satisfying both one’s own creative impulses as well as seeing how many more people one can reach. Strangers succeeds precisely because it invites in the listener rather than trying to meet any kind of false standard — and does so precisely while being as immediately memorable as one could hope.
Like July, Strangers is produced by Randall Dunn, translating his gift for working with louder and even darker bands elsewhere towards generally calmer waters. But waters that are no less shadowy. From the opening ‘Divers in the Dust,’ Nadler’s voice a softly keening presence over a lead piano part, feels both ghostly and caught in a larger space. The sense of live feel continues throughout the album, even as the album feels, quite simply, richer all around than its predecessor. Without ever simply rocking out or drowning her in arrangements, Strangers places Nadler, her often overdubbed vocals and her instrumental performances, at the centre of songs that feel like she’s in a spotlight and a sympathetic, never scene-stealing arrangement of performers is sensed and felt more than fully noticed.
With that image in mind, there would be an understandable ease to summarising Strangers as “just” another album of a certain general type. If said type has escaped the curse of being too easily summarised in a catchy word or two, consider the long impact of artists like Lee Hazlewood’s productions for himself and Nancy Sinatra, the Band’s quieter explorations of a just-out-of-reach past, Julee Cruise’s cool delivery over Angelo Badalamenti’s rippling arrangements, and many other efforts. It’s all sensed as located somewhere between a perceived songwriting classicism, lost or maybe never fully existed to start with, and the kind of rich atmosphere that suggests a moodily lit film set in some undetermined place and time (which makes more intrinsic sense than simply calling it ‘cinematic’).
This all provides a general framework for Strangers from the start but doesn’t fully capture what’s occurring. Rather, it’s how those signifiers suggest themselves in different ways while never sounding simply like a cloning. Nadler’s voice, soft and high but never cracking or piercing, exerts its own sense of audience control, and how the music then plays off that song for song becomes equally critical. It can be the opening guitar sting and twang on the title track before Nadler’s voice arrives, the nervous shimmer in the mix of ‘Katie I Know,’ soft strings set against a slow, murmuring funk arrangement, or the carefully controlled electric feedback exultance on the breaks of ‘Hungry is the Ghost,’ aiming for the heights but never blasting out.
But if novelty is not audible per se, neither is it meant to be seen that way. If anything, Nadler helps make the argument for a classic, cool quiet and intensity in a pop-era time of fractured noise and overwhelming immediacy. It’s always been easy to also group Nadler in with any number of underground or cult artists in one putative scene or another, but better instead to think of her in a continuum of performers that may be closer to her age but find their own ways towards transcendence. For myself, I find Nadler’s work more intrinsically captivating than, say, that of Bon Iver’s and Joanna Newsom’s, but I also prefer to think of her as paralleling acts that could range from Chelsea Wolfe’s dark, powerful constructions to Jessica Bailiff’s long run of starkly beautiful albums.
Beyond inexact comparison, the slow unwinding of detail and subtly astonishing moments throughout the album — the just-queasy-enough flow of ‘Skyscraper’ that concludes with a stirring instrumental coda, the hint of martial drumming on ‘Nothing Feels the Same’ — helps make the whole that much more distinct.
Finally, beyond her singing itself, Nadler’s is a lyrical voice that invites you to lean in just a little, to catch meaning rather than to simply relax in the sound of her voice. A song title like ‘All the Colors of the Dark’ is the kind of capsule paradox other writers might strain to spell out, while the character studies in songs like ‘Janie in Love’ and ‘Shadow Show Diane,’ if more allusive than not, are no less subtly intriguing for it.
Throughout, Strangers is quite simply an understated tour de force by a now experienced composer and performer, able to convey a feeling and lead the way within it in equal measure. To another decade of whatever will be next, and whatever results from there.