Calling from under sodden layers of USBM, bolstering the bracing wail of Scott Connor, a.k.a. Malefic, on 2010’s Call from the Grave, the last and worst Xasthur record, Marissa Nadler sounded like a woman lost. It wasn’t necessarily that she seemed out of place — in fact, her voice possesses an amaranthine power that feels like it might be entirely familiar with mithril or smoldering church ruins — but more that it felt like a base misapplication of her abilities, the effects neutralizing her voice to the extent that she could’ve been practically any wandering broad.
Nadler has a history of being mis-niched, beginning with her rise amid the whole “freak-folk” imbroglio, that damp, fetid spot of mid-aughts music journalism whose leading lights either modernized (Animal Collective’s turn toward synthetic sounds, Joanna Newsom’s incorporation of jazz elements and cleaner vocals) or suffered steep declines in quality (Devendra Banhart, Akron/Family) over the remainder of the decade. Adapt or die, I guess. Marissa Nadler is an honest-to-god folk singer, and thus getting lassoed together with what some tosser in the Times called the “Summer of Love 2.0” does her a pretty serious disservice.
Her songs sound best when trebly and forward, untroubled by diffusing production tricks or wanky instrumentation. 2009’s Little Hells, her last release with Kemado, muddied her sound to the point of homeliness. The processed toms, keyboard whirr, and squashed vocal treatment of “Mary Come Alive” remain the nadir of Nadler’s recorded works. Yet her pipes, for all their trilling vibrato and unplaceable cadence, lack the raw Anne Briggs lyricism required to sidestep sameness over an album of unalloyed single-guitar folk. Now, issuing a self-titled album out of boxes in her Boston apartment and running on the funds of fan-investors, she’s finally managed to find a backing that bolsters her ever-consistent songcraft with the assistance of producer Brian McTear.
Her voice no longer sinks into the scenery, instead standing Kelong-like on a sea of purple echoes now more Tyrian than fairie lilac. Brushed percussion buffets but does not break the legato sweep of her songs. Glissando’d mono synth surfaces but does not cloy at the end of “Baby I Will Leave You In the Morning,” and vibraphone peals but leaves no soapy residue. It’s a careful mix, edging onto cream-puff territory but never surrendering its solidity.
Nadler still thrives primarily in first-person characterization. “Daisy, Where Did You Go?” humanizes early-20th-century siamese twin performers Violet and Daisy Hilton even more successfully than Tod Browning did in the 1932 film Freaks. Depicting Violet in the post-fame squalor of a trailer park, Nadler buys into the myth that after Daisy fell to the Hong Kong flu, her sister remained living and cognizant, forced to ponder her life with half her body in the province of the Dark Angel. “With my phantom limbs and eerie hymns/ There are two of us here that I know,” she intones in spidery double-track. It’s not even the first time she’s told this particular story in song, but this time its fade-out hits gut-level.
“The Sun Always Reminds Me of You,” Marissa Nadler’s “lead single,” goes for a more generalized longing and, while commendable for its lustrous pedal steel and evocation of pop odes past, becomes little more than yet another song about other songs on the radio failing to capture emotions deeply felt, a trope too hoary not to grate. It’s a return to the Xasthur problem: a straying from the raveled roles she plays so truthfully. That said, “In A Magazine” converts similarly stale lyrical turns — “I saw you breaking down,” “you looked like someone that I used to know,” and the same bright backing — into something a bit more affecting. These more pedestrian moments break the incantation of an otherwise stellar, face-on piece of work that’s at the very least the equal of 2007’s Songs III: Bird on the Water.