Over the course of her first four albums, Marissa Nadler established herself as a truly distinct brand of songwriter. Although she clearly rooted her songs in folk music, there were simply too many electronic touches, too many icy textures, and the atmosphere was just a bit too thick for such a label to really do her justice. And when all is said and done, Nadler’s last album Little Hells – one of 2009’s most sorely overlooked albums – was a hauntingly beautiful record more akin to PJ Harvey’s White Chalk than folk. The album’s melancholic opening track “Heart Paper Lover” featured none other than a Theremin and the remainder of the album had as much in common with the Cocteau Twins as it did with Devendra Banhart. So it comes as a bit of a shock to the system the first time through her latest self-titled release to hear what appears to be an album generally comprised of genre specific hallmarks. Indeed, Marissa Nadler comes across as a fairly straightforward alt-country affair in the same vein as a Neko Case work.
The tipoff is in the title of the album’s latest single “The Sun Always Reminds Me of You”; given its frosty ambiance, one could easily be convinced that Nadler never even saw the sun during the recording of Little Hells. On “The Sun…” however, Nadler’s voice has a newfound hint of twang and there is something about the song’s progression that is altogether brighter. As it turns out, despite its tonal opposition to her prior work, this warmer sound is not necessarily a bad fit for Nadler. In fact, the transformation really only took a few stylistic tweaks to achieve. The album’s opener “In Your Lair, Bear” features the same achingly delicate finger picking that donned “Heart Paper Lover” and the lead guitar is still obscured in reverb. And even with a little twang, Nadler’s voice is still as powerful as ever but the addition of steel guitars definitely adds an airy warmth.
Despite the album’s seemingly straightforward nature, Nadler still has a way with incorporating unusual flourishes. “Baby, I Will Leave You in the Morning” still utilizes a unique portamento synth lead that wouldn’t generally be featured on, say, an Alela Diane album. “Wedding” opens with a moody pad that maintains a presence throughout the song, giving it an eerie off-kilter ambience. This, coupled with the wobbly synth lead that overtakes the end of the song, gives the track a closer resemblance to the Marissa Nadler of Little Hells. In turn, it’s also one of the record’s finest moments. This is not a slight to the remainder of the record, which is often deeply moving, it just serves to underscore that Nadler has a real knack for creating unsettling auras. That said, she makes it abundantly clear that she doesn’t need this moodiness to thrive; “In a Magazine” is gorgeous and never becomes clouded by murky atmospherics and the same could be said for much of the album.
The writing on this record is top notch; it’s impeccably performed and produced and Nadler’s singing is as affecting as ever. Even still, one can’t help but shake the feeling that she’s sanded down a lot of the very idiosyncrasies that made her so striking originally, especially on her last two excellent records. That being said, Marissa Nadler certainly doesn’t feel like some inauthentic genre exercise and no one can fault her for exploring a new climate when she apparently has the ability to pull it off so effectively. Apparently even a Marissa Nadler record that’s a bit easier to pin down is still a worthwhile one.