For the better part of a decade, Nina Nastasia has been on a path toward distilling her music down to its barest, most essential elements. While her sophomore album, 2002’s The Blackened Air, was her most dense album in terms of arrangements, she has gradually trimmed and refined her approach with every subsequent release. Its follow-up, Run to Ruin invited some captivating use of empty space into chamber string recording sessions, while 2006’s On Leaving found the New York singer-songwriter often backed by little more than some piano or acoustic guitar. By 2007, the only backing she needed was that of drummer and frequent collaborator Jim White, making a perfectly stark set of concise yet beautiful folk songs on You Follow Me.
With the essence of her music extracted and bottled into its purest form, Nastasia left open the widest of possible avenues to tackle her sixth album, and much to the contrary of her last two efforts, Outlaster is a denser, more ornate outing. With chamber orchestra arrangements by Paul Bryan, Outlaster is the biggest sounding album Nastasia has released in roughly 8 years, though “big,” in this case is a relative term. This isn’t U2 big, or recent Cat Power big, or even Andrew Bird big. These are darkly alluring songs, melodies that reveal themselves via subtle builds and unexpected swells. First track “Cry, Cry, Baby” doesn’t even tease the mere suggestion of strings until 30 seconds into its first verse. But when they slowly ease in, the gentle folk strums are given an emotional boost, weeping beneath Nastasia’s regrets, as she expressively coos, “You’re my only true love/ And I know I can’t change/ You’re my only true love… but I won’t change.”
“Cry, Baby, Cry” is merely a gentle transition into the new world that Outlaster‘s 10 songs populate, and what begins as an elegant backing turns more complex, each string dancing and cascading in dramatic fashion. Bryan’s arrangements are striking in their ebb and flow between eerily calm and commandingly loud. The orchestra works less as a group of backing musicians and more as a haunted ensemble cast swirling around Nastasia’s somber heroine. The horns that usher in the outstanding “You’re a Holy Man” lend a touch of jazz influence before Middle Eastern-inspired strings carry the song toward its stunning chorus. “This Familiar Way,” much like the opener, begins with little more than Nastasia’s own voice and gentle strums, but its bare-bones verse soon erupts into a powerful tango. And “What’s Out There” finds the sinister strings acting as a sort of shadowy villain, chasing Nastasia’s vocals toward a strange climax of mechanical effects.
For all of Outlaster‘s commanding arrangements, it still finds Nastasia inviting the listener into a remarkably intimate place. With its themes of passing time, alienation and distance, Outlaster allows very little light to shine among Nastasia’s stark reflections. “Moves Away” finds her lamenting, “No mail or telephone calls/ No peely cracks in the walls,” while the sparse “One Way Out” opens with the observation, “If we can tend the fire could burn forever,” delivered with such melancholy longing that it seems a foregone conclusion that it won’t happen. Ultimately, though, this isn’t an album about the depression or sadness that comes with time’s perpetual march, but rather the fact that we endure and move on, regardless. Nastasia phrases it most eloquently and beautifully in the closing title track: “No wonder waning, still on I wend/ A thousand years trailing forgotten friends/ All calling, calling, reply, reply.”
Throughout Outlaster there is loss, sometimes tragic, sometimes mundane, but Nastasia remains a calm and graceful center to each of its tempests. And those tempests prove more unpredictable and forceful than on any of her previous works. The bare, beautiful elements of her songs remain just as they were on previous albums, but on Outlaster, Nina Nastasia invites an entirely new and breathtaking perspective on her already gorgeous music.
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Video: “Cry, Cry, Baby”
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.