Marissa Nadler Strangers

[Sacred Bones; 2016]

Styles: “I’ll cross it, though it blast me. Stay, illusion!”
Others: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Joni Mitchell, Nick Cave

Don’t look now. There’s a ghost there. There too. I know. They’re everywhere, but — what? Who you gonna call? Nah, nah, don’t. Don’t get rid of them. We put them there. They’re here for us. And this isn’t a ghost review — it’s a review with ghosts in it. We struggle to boil our bodies into timelines: this is you at age nine, with a bowl cut, at the prom, tripping over a dog, failing Psych, sitting on a pier, when you’re with her, with him, then the other one. We parade our art around this neat bio-line, and then we’re stuck, our fishbowl brains distorting history into memory. How do we talk about what happened? We say it’s haunting us. We bring it back.

Songs have ghosts. They live for a moment, a primal Promethean birth/death instant, and then they’re ghosts. The MP3 and the vinyl and the performance is the reanimated, the shade, remembered now of the historical then. Each time Marissa Nadler sings the song, she’s being haunted. She brings it back.

You brought your rebooted and remembered P.K.E. Meter to exorcise Strangers , but those spectral trails are surface-level, dipped in your coffee. “Hungry is the Ghost” has a literal spirit poking around (“hungry is the ghost inside”), but the song’s also a cipher for making sense of ghosts as both real and figurative. There’s life to the narrative, the reexamining of an existence (“Over time I’ve come to see that I’m not better off”), but any reflection is always interrupted by that hungry ghost, jutting into the chorus, refusing to get out of the song. And then: “ Thought I saw you in a store/ Just a sign of wanting more. ” And then? “ Hungry is the ghost/ Breathe. Hungry is the ghost. ” It’s hard to get some peace, some closure, when the ghost that won’t go away is you.

It’s best to shake some life into Strangers . The two most arresting songs here are addressed to living people, sung by a person trying to sort out living a life without those people in it. “Janie in Love” finds Janie in love with a someone else who’s not singing the song.” You’re a natural disaster/ And I’m watching you blow up everything,” laments the singer, before she spins that worrisome new reality into a rising-falling, constant chorus: “Janieesinlovejanieesinlovejanieeeesinlove” that never seems to go away. We hope for the best for our friends, for them to feel good, for them to find love. Except when we don’t, like “Katie I Know.” Katie departs without a reason, no new love, no hope for either party: “They say you’ll come back to me/ But I won’t count on anything.” A lover mourning love lost? The ghost of a friendship? It’s pain. It’s Nadler with a spade, waist-deep (“I can’t bury this heart of mine”) in a plot of thoughts she hasn’t hit on before. There’s pain in hoping for love; there’s hurt in loving. We love our friends and they love us, and sometimes we let each other down and they’re gone. It’s impossible to move on, and it’s damning to say. We do both.

The flesh on the 11 ghosts of Strangers is heavier than on lots of Nadler’s past work. And the sonic space mirrors the lyric meat; this is corporal, forward locomotion. The voice still kicks, that soprano-alto you can feel in the silver of your molars, and now it soars around a creak-mansion full of Hollywood specials. In past recordings, Nadler and that voice were obsessed with brooding, circling the same gloom, highlighting but not etching. Strangers finds glee in horror as production, and producer Randall Dunn’s work wraps Nadler’s sketches in shawls fit for full phantasm. Nadler and her songs and Dunn just go for it. Folk gets in its own way. Freak is better. “Skyscraper” feels familiar, a finger-picked thing you could recall from a past collection, but then a drone is yelling behind it and the warm folk is buried alive. “Divers of the Dust” swirls, almost steadies but you look up: you’re encased in a piano’s innards, stuck in the dust, and that voice is already out in the ether, above you. “I don’t know where we are/ I don’t know my own name,” the voice exacts on “Nothing Feels the Same.” It’s all ghosts again, the re-appeared finally finding something self-aware.

There’s history, which is a what was. There’s memory too, and that’s our stake in our selves. Strangers asserts identity. “It’s the knell of a temporary death. Your spirit has departed, and it strays like a free citizen, among the people of a shadowy world, beholding strange sights, yet without wonder or dismay.” Like Hawthorne, Nadler understands the charge of ghosts, how they talk about what we were while exorcising how we are, how they shove fear and aspiration at us until it’s the familiar and the alien. Strangers is the alien, a presence, a present. It’s Annabel Lee finally aware of what jerks the angels are, the sound of her shouting back at the ocean.

Links: Sacred Bones

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