Sometime between 2003, when she released Run to Ruin, and today, Nina Nastasia underwent through a series of transformations. Her first three records had been released by Touch & Go, but when it came time to release album number four, she moved on to UK indie Fat Cat, and with this label shift also comes a significant change in sound. Where Run to Ruin was a dark, gothic folk album pocked with moments of unsettling silences, intense swells of strings and unnerving lyrics, her latest, On Leaving finds the New York singer/songwriter at a new phase, one much quieter, much simpler, yet not the slightest bit closer to sunlight.
This shift becomes instantly apparent in opening track “Jim’s Room,” which consists of little more than Nastasia’s voice, spare acoustic guitar, and a little bit of viola and cello. On previous records, her voice was subtle and graceful, yet with much less instrumentation to back her this time around, it becomes a much more prominent fixture, louder and more commanding, and at the same time more lonesome and emotive. On “Brad Haunts A Party,” the arrangement remains ultimately simple and brief (one of a few songs tracking at under two minutes), but with piano and drums added for a fuller sound. A mundane, everyday sort of sadness haunts this song, which makes the emotion seem even more real. Nastasia declares “we lie about everything” and “we don’t get around, like we used to do,” suggesting a resigned acceptance that comes with aging.
“Our Day Trip” continues this theme of ordinary melancholy, as Nastasia sings lyrics about calling in sick to work in order to leave the city and have a picnic, a simple, romantic idea made more so by the disappointments of everyday. There are moments in which Nastasia brings up her gloom, as on “Dumb I Am,” which softens the bummer with a melodically upbeat tune, yet only thinly veils lines like “all will spoil with the lies I tell” underneath.
“Why Don’t You Stay Home” is the pinnacle, both of this album’s sheer, stark beauty and of its brutal honesty. Nastasia bluntly coos “things might not get better/there, I said it, as gorgeous, gently plucked acoustic guitar strings and piano chime softly behind her. Never before has Nastasia sounded so exposed and so heartbreaking, and as a result, guarantees to pass the heartbreak on to the listener. Those on the verge will no doubt have the tears extracted by the end of this song. She can still take on more abrasive material, such as the harshly strummed waltz “One Old Woman,” but it’s the exception rather than the norm. On Leaving is the sound of an artist at her most vulnerable, and one at her most beautiful as well.
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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.