Kemado Records, 2009
REVIEW BY: Giselle Nguyen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/06/2009
A muted keyboard ostinato rises and falls dutifully, and a sound resembling a falling bomb swoops with subtle menace beside it. They dance together in perfect macabre sync, and then suddenly fall and land in a pool of whispers as a girl wanders into the scene, breathily spilling out the words “You were gone, and I was gone, and all of the flowers were dead and gone.”
Not exactly the most uplifting start to a record, but Marissa Nadler isn’t known for being cheery. The folk chanteuse’s fourth album, the aptly titled Little Hells, is every bit as paradoxical as her previous works – while dripping with morbidity, it also is achingly beautiful.
Like fellow folk songstress Joanna Newsom, Nadler has a dreamily addictive voice that sucks the soul into her world of delicate moroseness. Whether she is singing with childlike fear and wonder to her mother (“Little Hells”), pondering the connection between the past and the heart (“Ghosts And Lovers”) or begging to be returned to the ground from which she was birthed (the sublime “River Of Dirt”), Nadler remains gorgeously eloquent both musically and lyrically in her typical soft gothic-folk style.
The last minute of “Rosary” features a repeated three-note sigh, the wordlessness of which allows Nadler’s voice to be appreciated as an instrument itself rather than just a vessel for words. It’s a little like going back to 1991 and watching Edward Scissorhands carve angels from ice – the melody sweeps effortlessly over a vast expanse of cold and, even though you can hear frost forming on everything it touches, it somehow warms you, too.
Nadler does not push many boundaries with this record, and a majority of the tracks fall into her defined slow gothic folk. The few points in the album where she does experiment briefly don’t always work – in “The Hole Is Wide,” she ditches the folky guitars for a blunt four-chord piano progression that never develops and, after a few minutes, feels completely banal. (Also, Cat Power called. She wants “I Don’t Blame You” back).
But there are experimental triumphs, too. In “Mary Come Alive,” an eerily rousing tune describing a man’s desire for his dead lover’s resurrection, the subject matter’s creepiness is intensified with the steady drum beat accompanying a carnival-esque electric guitar riff which rolls repeatedly for the last 80 seconds of the track after Nadler’s voice has dispersed – it’s spine-tingling to imagine the bride’s ghost drifting over the fairgrounds in a restless eternity. It’s spookier, more passionate, more forceful than anything else she’s ever done and, listening to it, you forget she’s even a folk musician.
Though it would certainly be interesting to hear Nadler break even further out of her definitive niche and create more songs like “Mary,” it would also seem a dreadful waste for her to abandon something that she’s so comfortably settled into. There is simply no other musician out there currently who mixes beauty and depression as gorgeously as Marissa Nadler does. Even though this album is very much centered on only a handful of ideas, it just works.
Little Hells soundtracks our greatest fears, aches and, strangely, hopes. It is an album that sees the world falling apart and, while doing nothing to stop the inevitable, makes our own little hells seem a little more bearable.