Ballads Of Living And Dying Vinyl
Ballads Of Living And Dying Vinyl
Over the past couple of centuries, the definition of "ballad" has been stretched to include virtually any slow-tempo sentimental song, even on those occasions when it merely means Tommy Lee is coming out from behind his kit to play the piano. But once upon a time the word indicated a more specific, codified form of verse. In the days before widespread literacy, a ballad was a dramatic (frequently tragic) story-poem that functioned as something of an oral newspaper, constructed simply with recurring rhymes so that it could be easily remembered and repeated. And on her captivating debut album, Ballads of Living and Dying, Marissa Nadler does her small part to return balladry to its vivid and illustrious past.
On the surface this might not sound like a compelling proposition, but fortunately Nadler has the sort of voice that you'd follow straight to Hades. Her luxurious, resonant soprano is immediately transfixing, and throughout these songs it envelops the listener like a dense fog rolling in off the moors. Nadler's vocals are highly reminiscent of Hope Sandoval's-- with perhaps the faintest glimmer of the languid phrasing of cabaret chanteuse Marlene Dietrich-- and her unadorned arrangements recall the rain-weary solitude of early Leonard Cohen met with Mazzy Star or Opal at their most hazily narcotic.
Nadler is clearly savvy enough in her material to know that a true collection of ballads must include a body count, and the most obviously successful auld school example here is her arrangement of Edgar Allen Poe's poem "Annabelle Lee". As you might recall from junior high English, this is a classic tale of ill-starred love with a stretched-by-your-grave finale that fits the ballad form to perfection, and Nadler's melodic rendition here is flawless. And poor Annabelle Lee is not this album's only casualty; there's also "Virginia", which respectfully chronicles the death of Virginia Woolf, as well as dreamier, more ambiguous songs like "Undertaker" and "Box of Cedar" which certainly contain whispers of foreboding for their subjects.
Each song on the album comes lightly-dressed, usually borne along by little more than Nadler's voice, her fingerpicked guitars, and ornamental flourishes from the occasional accordion, autoharp, or blurry wisp of feedback. On "Hay Tantos Muertos", one the album's loveliest tracks, Nadler branches out from the strict balladic format, quoting lines from Pablo Neruda's haunting "No Hay Olvido" ("There Is No Forgetting") in a manner resembling a traditional Portuguese fado, and on "Days of Rum" she busts out a banjo and takes an enchanting turn at a Dock Boggs-style country blues.
It's worth noting that, aside from the Poe and Neruda quotes, all of these songs are original compositions rather than the traditional works they appear. Throughout the album Nadler writes and performs with a weathered maturity that belies her young age. In fact, several tracks ("Mayflower May", "Days of Rum", "Fifty-Five Falls") seem to be narrated from the perspective of older women looking back upon the adventures and mistakes of their youth. Also an accomplished visual artist, Nadler's lyrics showcase a perceptive eye and a genuine empathy for her creations; and when coupled with that intoxicating voice the resulting landscape is one you may want to get lost in for a century or two.
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