Over the past couple of years it’s been interesting to sit back and listen as Marissa Nadler has transitioned into the second phase of her career. Four albums of increasingly textured and ambitious folk narratives culminated in 2009 with the 4AD-tinged, dream pop-leaning Little Hells, which felt simultaneously like a culmination and an extension of Nadler’s aesthetic reach. To these ears, it’s still her best and most consistently absorbing record, but judging by the modest gestures she’s made in the years since, it may not have necessarily been her most genuine. Retreating, in a sense, from the gauzy glare emanating from her label endorsement and the attendant record’s more outwardly confident and ornamented sound, Nadler has spent the last three years literally Kickstarting her own label (Box of Cedar) and presumably reconciling her artistic idiom in the process.
Now with a personal outlet for new material at her disposal—and therefore divorced of the traditional release cycle—Nadler’s released new albums each of the last two years. Her latest, The Sister, follows up last year’s very good, pointedly self-titled effort, and like its predecessor strips her approach to its most elemental level. Nadler’s recent material, while not as immediate or stylistically expansive as her Little Hells-era work, is equally interesting for what it doesn’t try to be. Almost defiantly traditional in form, this is solemn, solitary folk balladering, reminiscent more of her early work than the collision course she seemed at one point to be on with the Cocteau Twins. It’s music that seems to naturally flow forth from Nadler, and if it wasn’t for her increasingly complex way with song structure, it would be difficult to place these songs contextually within her catalogue.
It feels less like a retreat, however, then an authentic actualization of her base impulse as a songwriter. The Sister opens with the excellent “The Wrecking Ball Company,” which matches her previous album’s opener, “In Your Lair, Bear,” in both scope and melodic precision, standing as one of her best introductions yet. And this is what Nadler has become best at: unfurling knotty acoustic meditations over patiently dispensed percussion and spacious atmospherics without forgoing the hypnotic intonation of her bracing voice. “Love Again, There is a Fire” follows, bringing her most familiar character, Mary, to a track rife with redemption and hope, a stark reversal from her typically heartrending reveries. Meanwhile, “Christine” and “Apostle” accentuate her simultaneously symbolic and elliptical way with narrative, the latter leapfrogging it’s presumed religious bent with a painfully intimate and drawn-out refrain of “I’m whole,” which only reads curt and simplistic on the page.
And that’s the first side of the record, which is uniformly wonderful. “Constantine” opens side two, and it’s another fine piece of songwriting, though cut from basically the same cloth—melodically, structurally—as many of her most typical tracks. Similarly, “To a Road, Love” and “In a Little Town” are both nostalgic lamentations for brief moments of love left hanging only by a memory, yet sequenced back-to-back and without the melodic backbone of some of the record’s strongest tracks, can just as easily pass by unacknowledged. Finally there’s “Your Heart is a Twisted Vine,” distinguishing itself, like most of her best recent material, through a uncommon trust in her structural ingenuity, folding five-plus minutes of circular guitar picking and sighing electric accompaniment—extremely reminiscent of Nina Nastasia’s On Leaving (2006) highlight, “Counting Up Your Bones”—into a serenely tumultuous plea for synergy.
Besides being frontloaded, what ultimately holds The Sister back from Nadler’s most essential releases is its modest presentation. At eight songs and barely thirty minutes in length, the record can’t help but come across as slight. Furthermore, it’s swift release and stylistic similarity to her self-titled record inevitably pairs it with its predecessor—an addendum or, if you will, a sister release. Despite the overall effectiveness of her prior record, one can’t help but think that the two may have been combined into one singular statement of reconstituted priority. But as it stands, The Sister is another fine record in Nadler’s growing catalogue, yet one tied more to the well-trodden tropes (lyrically, stylistically) she’s built her name on than we’ve grown accustomed. I may never outright scoff at any new material granted us by Marissa Nadler, but having now taken full control of her artistic integrity, one hopes that the freedom afforded by such a set-up facilitates growth rather than impedes it. [CMG]