The core of Little Hells-- Marissa Nadler's elegiac and elegant fourth album-- is appropriately wedged in the middle: After moving alongside dual Wurlitzers and a theremin throughout opener "Heart Paper Lover", slowly waltzing above a country quartet on "Rosary", and augmenting a dark conversation between a man and his tired wife with industrial-iike programming and synths for "Mary Come Alive", Nadler settles back into her minimal roots for the next four tunes. During those 14 perfect minutes, it's just her voice and finger-picked acoustic guitar, augmented cautiously by piano, organ, and ripples of electronics. Surrounded by little else but her own melancholy, Nadler sums up her career's existential despair: "Ghosts and lovers/ They will haunt you for a while," she sings. And while they do, Little Hells suggests through 10 of Nadler's best songs yet, the sadness will either kill you or keep you going.
Nadler's earlier albums delivered this somberness almost exclusively through songs for acoustic guitar. On those records, her backing musicians seemed intent upon emphasizing the spectral, lost-love tendencies of her words, adding ominous cello shrieks, sinister electric leads, or raggedy lo-fi touches, which found her tagged from the start as a freak-folk artist. As late as her most recent album-- the exquisite breakthrough Songs III: Bird on the Water-- she did little to dispel that categorization, filling the record with archaic language and outsider accompaniment by New England experimentalists like multi-instrumentalist Greg Weeks and cellist Helena Espvall.
At last, Little Hells moves Nadler well beyond easy categories, thanks to a newfound clarity in her words, a compelling link between her songs, and production that sharpens her old strengths wheile brightly exposing new ones. Sonically, her reach is wider and more assured. On "Mary Come Alive", circular drumming, gauzed vocals, and synthetic harmonium suggest the unlikely union of Cocteau Twins and Swans. Meanwhile, "Loner" stacks organ sustains and submerges them beneath Nadler's strum and half-hummed coo. It's like Grouper coming back down the Hill or Valet emerging from the Acid, but more memorable and accessible than both.
But the LP's highlight is still the four-song core that recalls vintage Nadler-- now played, captured, edited, and arranged better than in the past. Her only solo turn here, "Brittle, Crushed & Torn", is crisp and concise, the presentation revealing the strength of the melodies in her bass-heavy picking and the wispy vocals above. "The Whole Is Wide" uses only that voice and Dave Scher's staccato piano march; the simplicity helps the album's most lyrically complex song translate off the page as Nadler intertwines the stories of two women, Sylvia and Laila, who waste their life away in the absence of a man. Nadler swaps first- and third-person pronouns and twists verb tenses, building tension by suggesting that they're both dead or at least headed that way. That time-and-person slipstream is what binds the 10 tracks of Little Hells so well. Nadler mixes images of individuals in various stages of love and loss, often pairing them with imagery of death, decay, and rebirth.
What Nadler's done on Little Hells suggests Antony and the Johnson's work on one of the year's other accomplishments, The Crying Light. Hegarty too alternated between thoughts of giving up, getting out, or fighting back. To do that, he eschewed the guests of I Am a Bird Now, choosing to sing with himself through fascinating harmonies, vocal lines intersecting with one another in unexpected patterns. He also expanded his sound in unexpected directions while refining what he'd always done well-- luxuriously layered arrangements-- through subtlety and tension. Nadler does all of that on Little Hells, and-- like Antony-- she's transcended freak folk as a result.
8.3, pitchfork, by Grayson Currin