Marissa Nadler’s stunning album Songs III: Bird on the Water was one of the most delicately beautiful albums of 2007. Its soft and somber acoustic style presented Nadler as one of America’s most talented songwriters, offering a selection of songs that haunted as much as they greeted their listeners with a soft caress. Yet if there’s one affront to putting that album on constant rotation, it’s that one can easily become overwhelmed by the album’s darkness. It’s awfully pretty, but there’s little cheer to be heard.
With fourth album Little Hells, Nadler returns with a set of songs that’s still steeped in sadness and dark reflection, yet underscored with brighter melodies and fuller arrangements, ultimately arriving at something just as pretty as her previous work, but a bit more accessible. One of the most striking changes on Little Hells is the prevalence of drums, provided by Blonde Redhead’s Simone Pace on four tracks. And there’s a bit of Blonde Redhead’s arty, melancholy pop sound in several of these tracks as well, thanks to a greater emphasis on Chris Coady’s atmospheric production and a much larger number of keyboards than anyone’s used to hearing on a Nadler album.
The mysterious opener “Heart Paper Lover” elegantly glides along a Wurlitzer melody with twinkly theremin adding gorgeous, stellar accompaniment. “Rosary” takes a sharp departure, however, ushering in a stunning country-folk tune that waltzes beneath Nadler’s reverb-addled vocals, which, here, bear a strong resemblance to Chan Marshall of Cat Power. It’s a heartbreaker of a tune, like most vintage country, gliding from Nadler’s lament of “trouble’s never gonna leave me alone” to an ascendant harmony of voices that takes the song to a sublime height.
Densely produced standout “Mary Comes Alive” is the biggest Nadler’s music has ever sounded, her spectral voice spookily floating atop an abstract, ambient pop tune that’s lovely and bizarre, and even kind of rocks. After this track, Nadler switches back to a familiar mode, opting primarily for acoustic guitar-based tracks like those of her previous effort. The title track, “Ghosts & Lovers,” “Brittle, Crushed & Torn” and “The Whole Is Wide” find Nadler hitting a stride with relatively simple arrangements, the last of the four in particular sounding gorgeous with its stark piano contrasting with her eerily angelic voice. Yet when Nadler and her supporting cast launch into the amazing “River of Dirt,” she sounds sexier than ever, riding a slinky groove as she coos, “El Camino, take me home.”
While Little Hells isn’t wholly more optimistic or upbeat than its predecessor, it allows for a bit more sunlight to shine through its hazy curtains. Nowhere is this more evident than on the hopeful closer “Mistress,” in which Nadler sings “goodbye, misery.” This is very much a different record from what came before, and in spite of any dramatic shifts that have occurred, it’s uniquely Marissa Nadler. And once again, she has re-staked her claim as one of America’s most talented songwriters.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.