Marissa Nadler’s icy, transporting gothic folk
COMMON IDIOSYNCRASIES: Uncommonly chill.
If Songs III: Bird on the Water didn’t begin on a such a stirring note, it would be a lot easier to fault Marissa Nadler for icy detachment. But “Diamond Heart” is a breakup song of uncommon fragility; Nadler plays the confounded ex-lover, failing at therapeutic misbehavior (“I had a man in every town/And I thought of you each time/I tore of my gown”) and stoic disinterest (“So have you heard, I’m a singer now/With reliquary eyes, and a diadem frown”).
|Songs III: Bird on the Water | by Marissa Nadler | on Kernado Records | at SPACE Gallery, in Portland | 9:30 pm September 10 | $7 | 207.828.5600|
Her voice flutters like a windswept leaf in a blizzard (the slightest hint of a Joanna Newsom coo), and by the time she resigns herself to unwilling depression — “But oh my lonely diamond heart/It misses you so well” — a crescendo of lilting mandolin sounds like that precious rock shattering on the ground.
All of the album’s eleven tracks explore similarly sad subjects in an unsympathetic manner, but “Diamond Heart”’s deep, gothic gravity alerts you to the graceful shifts in texture that keep Bird on the Water from becoming a drag. Factory bells and whistles sound through a stiff breeze on “Dying Breed,” as if to emphasize the businesslike distance of Nadler’s remembrance of a dead friend (“And darling you did gamble/’cause you were a dying breed”). A church organ synthesizer on “Silvia” offers Nadler her softest cushion, one of the album’s lone instances of fondness. Only the magisterial hymnal “Feathers” is extraneous; despite the album’s best line (“With eyes as deep as brandy wine”), the heft of an opulent nonsense chorus is wearying and insubstantial.
Nadler shares common idiosyncrasies with some of her most notable contemporaries. Like Newsom, she has a precise and sometimes anachronistic vocabulary that loans an otherworldlyness to her storytelling. Her characters, likewise, are fascinatingly indifferent; certain moments dispense a slight black humor reminiscent of the coy teases of St. Vincent’s recent album, Marry Me. Andrew Gaerig, writing for the online Stylus Magazine, expresses confusion over whether Nadler’s intentions are “narcissistic or romantic,” and suggests that there’s an academic, perhaps feminist tilt to her songs.
The argument carries some weight. It’s difficult to make heads or tails of the intentions behind “Silvia,” whose drowning is mused upon with thoughts such as “oh where did you fail” and “the water is your friend/And down and down and down you go.” Granting Nadler’s swooning delivery, it’s hard to call the sentiments clinical, but clear-cut they aren’t. Another song to a woman, “Rachel,” has an uncertain egotism, recalling “I had you once in the palm of my hand/And a fine old time it was.”
Maybe it’s the lost, perhaps-jilted wanderer of “Diamond Heart” that explains the asceticism pervading the subsequent tracks. The song, in lyric and execution, has a plaintive honesty the rest of Songs III: Bird on the Water lacks. But rather than making the remaining songs seem wanting, “Diamond Heart” explains their unique chill. The words change, but Nadler’s majestic voice retains the sadness that seeps calmly but certainly through the album.
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