“Goodbye misery,” Marissa Nadler sang on “Mistress,” an ode to an always-receding lover, a two-timing fantasy she could never seem to leave behind. That was in 2009, the closing song of Little Hells, but since then, Nadler hasn’t done much to honor its vow to lead a more stable, sustainable, and ultimately satisfying life, at least judging both by the tenor of the albums since and by July, her sixth anthology to date and first for the Brooklyn-registered Sacred Bones label. Beginning with the lamentation, “If you ain’t made it now/ You’re never going to make it,” it finds the Bostonian all-but renouncing any plans for arrival or fulfillment, and instead drifting in whatever direction she can through ballads of comfortable gloom and non-committal reverie. And even though much of its material is as elegant as anything she’s recorded over the span of her 10-year career, the overall stasis of its encompassing body of work robs it of believability and weight, and impresses it with the frustrated need to be pushed beyond the Nadlerian eternally-recurring cycle of futile escapism.
Returning to those first couple of lines, July introduces itself with “Drive,” its maudlin acoustics setting the tone for the rest of the 46 minutes, as well as defining both the album’s strengths and weaknesses in a clutch of forlorn whispers. Featuring an irresistible modulation into its lilting chorus, the opener stories an exodus towards the proverbial carrot of Hollywood and its bright lights. That same chorus declares, “Nothin’ like the way it feels/ To drive,” and lifted by misty slide-guitar and dissolute organ, it encapsulates a detached non-life where the seduction of impossible ideals and images repeatedly tears people away from the world they actually inhabit. This itinerant non-life is pretty much the thematic core of July, and its depiction houses quintessentially “romantic” wanderers who are always on the move, restlessly skirting from one place and one dream to another with the hope of unearthing something better, always neglecting the good they already possess as they do so.
But this fixation on constant movement and geographical change is at bottom simply an attempt to avoid having to take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror, to avoid having to change yourself rather than your zip code, and it’s almost as if, by singing about such maturity-shirkers and self-evaders, Nadler thinks she correspondingly doesn’t have to take a gander at herself and develop the brand of spectral folk that’s been congealing into a melancholy limbo around her for the past decade. This isn’t to say there aren’t moments of doomed beauty on July, since arias like the haunted “Desire” and the aching distortion of “Was It A Dream” effortlessly seep into the pores of anyone of a remotely quixotic disposition (e.g., me). But it is to say that tales of people who’ve dislocated themselves from their surroundings and then become paradoxically inert nomads is a nearly perfect mate for a sometimes idle album that doesn’t advance Marissa Nadler as an artist.
This inertia arises because, more than anything else, to travel ceaselessly is to refuse a specific location in space and society, and thus to refuse identity and being, the evolving name conferred upon you by installation within certain environments and social structures. It is effectively to transform yourself into a ghost, and in keeping with this ghoulish form of existence, July abounds in the signifiers of apparitions and phantasms. “Dead City Emily” features heavily-echoed wires of guitar and ethereal synths (courtesy of Zombi’s Steve Moore), and as with every song on the album, Nadler’s voice is pressed through a layer of reverb, causing it to evaporate around its edges just enough to suggest the insubstantiality of her visions and idylls, and just enough to play with the listener’s emotions as a consolation against the absence of novelty.
And in conjunction with the motif of travel and lost highways is the recurrence of anachronistic and abstracted figures, people who manage to divorce themselves from time and place via an absorption in memory and fictive memory. In the ascending “1923,” Nadler recounts a relationship between lovers ostensibly severed by different eras, the flex of Eyvind Kang’s strings forming the idiosyncratic, out-of-step longing that perhaps conspires to keep the two separate. “I called you from another century/ Baby come back to me,” she grieves during the fatalistic chorus; her atemporal sentiments are matched by those of the aforementioned “Desire,” where skeletal finger-pickings introduce the regret, “I sent my song too soon,” and where the second wintry verse has her telling a paramour, “You’ve got no lines on your face,” thereby illuminating the unreality of the idea she had forged of him, the fact that this idea doesn’t refer to a breathing, aging human being with his own lived experience.
Perhaps Nadler is aware of the illusions she’s constructed around herself for the better part of her tenure, and perhaps she even intuits that one of these hallucinations is her self-conception, because at certain points in July, the music reads as though its addressee is its own author. For example, “Anyone Else,” with its sustained airy chants and brittle melody, contains the gauzy invective, “What a lie you are living now/ You could have been somebody’s better side,” apparently lambasting its own singer for not following a less uncertain and amorphous path through life. Moreover, in the end, it’s the vague, shapeless, and undefined nature of the fancies her protagonists chase that partly undermines the album’s substance, since without any clear delimitation of their supposedly particular aspirations it’s a little hard to sympathize with her characters and see in them anything more than cowardly, flighty children who ought to grow up. And without wanting to be too unforgiving, maybe it’s time that she grew up with them.