Release Date: May 20, 2016
Label: Sacred Bones / Bella Union
Midway through Marissa Nadler’s exquisite seventh album Strangers, she pens an ode to “All the Colors of the Dark.” Gently singing over hypnotic keyboards and swelling strings, the Boston-based singer-songwriter condenses a lifetime of heartbreak and sacrifice into her poetic lyrics, noting how the small surrenders gradually leave their mark and change a person, making them unrecognizable. “This is not your world anymore,” she proclaims, as much to herself as to the object of the song. Its title is indicative of the content throughout Nadler’s latest LP, rich with subtext that explores the nuances in her meditative, somber approach to folk tunes. Combining heightened conflict and pensive reflection in her naturally serene manner, Nadler pens lullabies for when it’s just you and the abyss.
Strangers is defined by change, the gradual kind that you don’t notice until a photograph or memory pulls you in to look back at the person you were years ago. This steady shift mirrors Nadler’s career, built upon subtle variations that mask how far she’s truly progressed in the 12 years since the traditional folk stylings of her early material. Her releases have been consistently stellar, each with more poise and maturity than the one previous. More than a decade in, she has complete command of her craft on her most sonically expansive and emotionally wrenching outing yet.
Part of personal growth involves acclimating to sentiments of weariness and resignation, aspects that Nadler effectively captures without making them appear dull. “Katie I Know” describes the painful realization of knowing when to cut ties with a toxic relationship. “I can’t bury all the times they say you’ll come back to me / But I won’t count on anything,” Nadler laments, her tremendous voice bringing complicated feelings of disappointment to life. But rather than overwhelm with sorrow, the singer deftly portrays the empowering, renewed strength in letting go.
Nadler’s restraint and precision prevents the darkness from devolving into caricature; any catharsis on Strangers feels earned. On the title track, pedal steel and electric guitar accentuate the country inspirations, careful to not throw off this delicate balance, and she juxtaposes that with the thunderous “Janie in Love,” replacing the quiet with dramatic instrumentation that eventually crashes into the chorus. It befits a song that likens falling for someone to preparing for a natural disaster.
Nadler is often boxed in as some kind of goth-folk singer, but that’s kind of like putting on a Joanna Newsom record and actually expecting her to sing about Hobbits. Paying lip service to country-fried melancholy that recalls Mazzy Star and ornate, haunting pop that looms near Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence, Nadler continues to find new wrinkles in a style she’s been carefully refining for years. Never have her arrangements felt as lush and enveloping as they do on “Katie I Know” or the wistful “Nothing Feels the Same,” full of sweeping, carefully wrought orchestration.
Twelve years in, many artists either settle into a rut, coast on past success, or grasp for drastic reinvention. The way Nadler avoids these trappings signifies her confidence in her own artistic skin. Her style isn’t flashy, often causing the singer to wind up on the “overlooked” portion of year-end lists, yet it’s astounding how she has yet to peak. In all respects, Strangers is about coming to terms with one’s situation, and what it lacks in blind hope it makes up for with thoughtful consideration. That care is what assures the record’s grace and splendor.