Marissa Nadler is the unlikely crossover artist whose music is unobtrusive enough to be played over mall speakers (which isn’t to say it’s populist, just really pretty) while also appealing to people who wear black metal band tees and favor genres of music prefaced with variants of the word ‘dark’ (a rare pass given to a folk singer, likely due to her involvement with Xasthur or maybe just recognition for her unsmiling austerity). Nadler, who writes music that is sensuously sad without being lachrymose, fittingly calls this a sister to her 2011 self-titled, and both siblings are stripped-down and staid compared to the fuller sound of 2009’s Little Hells. Delicate as gossamer while veiling a quiet defiance, these are nuanced songs that improve with repeated listens.
The Sister, billed as a collection without filler and scarcely longer than an EP, is Nadler’s shortest and sparsest full-length yet. The decision to limit it to little more than a handful of tracks ensures it’s succinct and absent of any songs I could comfortably call ‘bad’ or even ‘not good,’ but it also means there’s no room for any of the risks that made her older work so fresh and adventurous. There are no songs in Spanish and no Leonard Cohen covers (she does a mean “Chelsea Hotel #2”), just eight daintily picked songs with little variety, plateaued for 30 minutes at a muted-storm intensity. It’s all pretty and pleasant, but also indistinct — it feels as if nothing’s at stake; nothing wavers but the lilt of her voice. I hesitate to gripe because by her sixth album she’s nearly perfected the careful mixture of lush and lugubrious, but even The Sister’s consistency and thematic tightness (the main features it has going for it) can’t hold up against the exceptional second half of Songs III: Bird on the Water or match the messy heights of her more recent and uneven self-titled.
That’s not to say that there aren’t standouts. “Christine” feels like the long-needed female counterpart to Red House Painters’ “Michael,” which features a similar take on a crumbled friendship. “What has become of you now, Christine?” coos the resigned Nadler, echoing Mark Kozelek’s anguished “Michael, where are you now?” The substance abuse double whammy of “Apostle” and “Constantine” immediately follows, and it’s nice to hear Nadler varying her subject matter to focus on telling stories in place of the odes to lost love that characterized her older work. Inspired by confessional songwriters, this is lyrically one of her braver albums — if only the same could be said of the structures and accompaniment. If for some reason you’re forced to pick between sisters in this family of records, forgo the younger plain sibling for the worldly older one.