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Project 52 ’11 22: Marissa Nadler

July 30, 2011

Album cover

Marissa Nadler is a shoe-gaze, American folk artist who I first came across a number of years ago when a friend of mine had one of her songs on her Myspace profile (remember those?). Although I can’t remember the exact song, I do remember staying up late and listening to it several times over. Over time I have scoured her back catalogue, downloaded songs and bought t-shirts and albums on CD and vinyl. Along the way I have fallen in love with her work and become a real fan of this hugely talented artist. When I found out she was producing a new album, I was very excited and she released her fifth offering, Marissa Nadler, in June of this year.

You might think it odd that Nadler chose her fifth album to be her self-title release. Usually, the self-titled album is the first release a band or artist makes, but it becomes more clear when you realise that Nadler left the record label (I don’t know the circumstances) she was signed to and set up her own label. This goes to explain why the album is self-titled – I can’t but feeling that Nadler is seeing this album as a clean break and a new start though she has thankfully remembered her foundations and developed her sound rather than abandoning it altogether. The album was also funded in a way I had not come across – kickstarter.com. The basic premise is that an artist sets a funding goal and fans give them money towards that goal. In return, the fans receive items from the artist. The more a fan gives to the artist, the more they receive in return. If you were really rich you could pay for Nadler to come and perform the song she had composed for you in your front room. Being too nervous, too star-struck and too poor, I opted to the package which gave me a vinyl copy, a CD (both signed) and digital download (with extra EPs and tracks) as well as a t-shirt and other sundries. One of the good things about kickstarter.com is that if there is not enough interest in the project and whoever it is fails to reach their goal, then none of the patrons have to pay out. This means you are protected from projects that you rated but no one else did and your own poor decision making. As testament to the enthusiasm of her fans and to the talent of the woman, Marissa Nadler flew past her target and the album was funded.

What she has managed to produce here has been hailed by many as some of her best work to date. Sycophantic as it may sound, I can’t help but agree. Although I love her earlier, stripped-out and simple albums with haunting, echoey  twangy guitars and reverberating vocals, I love the way in which the sound in this album has been built up to really show Nadler’s depth and range. The production on the songs is extraordinary when you consider that she has had no help from an outside influence such as a record company and that the whole project was fan-funded and self-motivated.

One of the themes which pervades Nadler’s music is the use of recurrent characters and ideas. The first song (“In Your Lair, Bear”) immediately calls up the character Bear, who has appeared in a few songs over more than one album. The songs starts off in a very traditional Nadler style before bass and drums ( no matter how subtle) are added to give the fuller sound. Add to this strings and even a glockenspiel somewhere and you are left with a beautiful song which takes the positives from her previous works and adds to them. The song doesn’t stay still either, but changes and develops during several point of its six minutes. As a first song and therefore the gateway into the album and a statement of intent, it is a well thought-out, well chosen piece of music and will leave fans in no doubt that they are in for something which they can identify as Nadler and enjoy alongside her earlier work.

“Alabaster Queen” is the second song and although less changeable than the first song, it is also a well-worked piece of music and demonstrates that Nadler is more than capable of throwing off the shackles of a producer and a professional studio to make something which must be personal to her as she has had a hand in every part of its completion. The lyrics are typical of her work – dream-like and ephemeral, haunting and strange; always beautiful. There is always something dark in the lyrics but I think the beauty comes from the way in which they are delivered and framed by the music.

“Sun Always Reminds Me of You” is the third track and perhaps the most commercial of this album’s output. It has a country and western, steel guitar twang to it which I think would be highly saleable in certain areas of America, but I never get the feeling that Nadler has any mercantile motive in her song. It is one of my favourite songs on the album even though I think country and western may be the genre I appreciate the least. There is something in this medley which just works for me. Maybe I am too blinded by the fact it is by an artist I love to appraise it properly, but I don’t think that is a factor. I’ve listened to the song dozens of times and I still want to hear it again. I find myself craving the song when I can’t hear it (at work, perhaps).

Another recurrent character is Mr. John Lee who pops up on this album on “Mr. John Lee Revisited”. It looks back to a song “Mr. John Lee (Velveteen Rose)” on  Nadler’s  album The Saga of Mayflower May. The two songs seem to compliment each other well but you can also hear the transition which has taken place between the albums. The lyrics are now more developed and less reliant on colour imagery which features heavily in earlier work. Nadler’s voice also sounds a lot clearer in the later song. I don’t know whether this is down to better equipment and production values, but it is a welcome step for someone who has such a delicate and beautiful voice. It needs to be heard as clearly as possible. Couple this voice with her somnolent lyrics and the song produced is dreamlike and powerful at the same time. I always get the feeling her music is transcendent in some way and this song demonstrates this perfectly.

The fifth song on the album is “Baby I Will Leave You in the Morning” and features some classic Nadler-style lyrics with themes of loss and longing. This song stands out in the way in which it challenges Nadler to stretch her voice in a way I have not heard before. The song builds through several layers and key changes before reaching its final climatic end. I’m glad to report that Nadler’s voice easily makes the transition between whispered folk vocals to more powerful, rock inspired singing and that her voice sounds full and unstretched by the transition. She is clearly an artist who has range, not only musically, but vocally as well. “Baby I Will Leave You in the Morning” was the first song I heard from this album and the sheer weight and power of it came as a surprise to me. I’m glad that the whole album isn’t like this song – I think it would be a step too far from her origins and isolate her fan base – but I am glad that she included it and has allowed us to see the true potential of her voice and range. It is well-deserved of a place on an album which marks a maturing in Nadler’s recording career.

An early favourite of mine was the sixth track, “Puppet Master”. I don’t listen to a lot of Leonard Cohen but this song contains a refrain which to my mind comes straight off of his lyrics sheet “Lately all I want is you / Sometimes I believe it’s true / Fifteen strings of yarn and glue / Puppet master see me through”. Perhaps it is the way in which it delivered and perhaps it is because I have very little knowledge of Cohen’s work, but something in this refrain reminds me of him. The song is complex and cleverly put together, layering music of different paces and multiple instruments as well as breaking down into the aforementioned refrain, backed by xylophone all held together with some classic Nadler singing and lyrics. In truth, I think this song is rather hard to analyse – I just like it and think that it’s one of the strongest offerings from a strong album. It takes Nadler to a place I don’t think she would have been capable of going five years ago. This whole breakaway album needed to show that she was capable of striking out on her own and I think she has more than achieved this. Songs like “Puppet Master” are the perfect example of an artist who is confident in her work and her abilities.

A more ‘grass roots’ offering is “Wind Up Doll” and is a track which could have appeared on any of the earlier albums. It is a haunting little number, especially lyrically and features a plucked guitar sound which repeats its refrain throughout the song. The music is tailored to the clockwork theme without becoming hackneyed or staid and manages to produce a relaxing song. Its slow pace is a transition from the preceding tracks.

“Wedding” follows and whilst it follows on in a similar pace to “Wind Up Doll”, there is a more upbeat feel to the song. Whirring background noises produce a dreamy effect which reflects the notion of dreaming and imagination which the song has. The song builds with the use of electric guitar, drums and backing vocals before climaxing. Again, Nadler’s voice is on display and she rises to the challenge admirably. She is at times very far removed from what I had come to expect from her without becoming unrecognisable or unlikable. If I were to criticise the song (and that’s what I’m here for, after all), I’d say that it ends rather abruptly and unexpectedly.

The lyrics in “Little King” are some of the best I have heard from Nadler.  They are mature and have all the elements of Nadler’s writing which I have come to admire over her past works. They frame a song which is simple but very beautiful and a rather classic example of her style. I especially like the “Bibles / rifles” rhyme in the chorus.

“In a Magazine” has an end-of-album feel to it, but it is in no way a throw-away track tacked onto the end of a record – it is second from last. The song shows the way in which Nadler has managed to mature sonically whilst keeping in touch with the roots which she has grown from. It has an upbeat aspect and, unusually for her, an air of hopefulness. The lyrics might not reflect this (she once quipped on stage ‘This song is unusual for me: it doesn’t have a body count.’), but therein lies a paradox which I feel Nadler could well exploit in the future.

Last song is “Daisy Where Did You Go” and the start of the song again could have come from any of her earlier albums. The repeated guitar strains, reverberated vocals and lyrics focussed on loss and lament – it has all the elements of songs which made me love Nadler’s music in the first place and it is the perfect end to a highly enjoyable album

To call this album a comeback would be wrong. Nadler has been doing a lot of touring since her last album, which was released quite recently. Instead this album is a resurgence of sorts. It has allowed her to become free of outside influences and to really cut a path which she has chosen. The results are one of her best albums to date and to ensure that her music does not become repetitive and expected. it feels as though she has really connected with the music making process and that this is the record that she really wanted to make. I for one am glad that she has started her own record label.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2011 12:55 pm

    Great review! I especially liked the mention of a certain friend’s Myspace page… 😀

    I’m gonna have to listen to this album now. I remember reading up on Nadler after I bought ‘The Saga of Mayflower May’ and finding that she is actually far more accomplished than her humility would suggest! I am not surprised that she has developed to the point that you’ve described. It’s on my wishlist!

    • paulgallear permalink
      July 30, 2011 2:20 pm

      Haha thanks Emma, I thought you’d remember. I’m surprised she isn’t more well known in folky circles

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