“The question of whether Marissa Nadler's elegant folk music ought to soundtrack our dreams or haunt our nightmares has been a thread through her uncannily cohesive catalogue. With six albums in 10 years and never a misstep, Nadler has grown her own perceptive language—she's an old-soul lost in time like Sibylle Baier, but her music is blackened and more literary. Her songs have come steeped in misery and macabre, cobwebs and ashes, but Nadler is not a doomy aesthete merely for gloom's sake. She is devoted to Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, and her music understands folk tradition. While her songs sound isolated and spiritually vintage, as if beamed from the grayscale interior of a Victorian home, her stories have been generous, selfless tales, heavy with metaphor and imagery. Nadler's poetic temperament and steady grace point to a darkness within us all—though her singing always seems to hone on mortality not for the purpose of crushing, existential missives, but in order to protect us.
Each of Nadler's albums has signaled subtle evolution. After channeling a bewitched Hope Sandoval and establishing a gothic heart, her sound became gorgeous and nuanced on 2007's III, broke from the freak-folk tag on 2009's astounding Little Hells, and incorporated sing-song Gillian Welch-inspired country pop on 2011's gleaming Marissa Nadler. Still, she has never let her dark essence slip away—this is a singer whose first record mixed traditional English balladry with an arrangement of Edgar Allen Poe's "Annabelle Lee" and a song about the death of Virginia Woolf. "I once was young and I once was strong," she sang then, in 2004, at age 23 on "Box of Cedar". Nadler's music has been tinged by country blues and murder balladry, by people who died alone and old loves who creep her memory. But empathy has defined her work. See, for example, Nadler’s tender treatment of the recurring figure Mayflower May, a lonely and reflective old woman, or the 20th-century siamese twin circus performers Daisy and Violet (2011's spellbinding "Daisy, Where Did You Go?" explores what happened to Violet when Daisy died first, an especially harrowing piece of historical subject matter).
Nadler's self-described "dreadfully shy" wallflower persona fits in well with these earlier records, filled with swaths of muted color and third-person characters. July is another side of Marissa Nadler; if she sounded older back on Little Hells, Nadler is younger and bolder now, in confessional mode. Here are intimately personal accounts of misread desire, an empty heart set by winter blues, and years wasted on a lover who could do no right. "I called you when I was drunk all the time," Nadler sings on the quiet, finger-picked "Holiday In", stranded on a mountain in winter, recalling a depleted love. This is the "beer/thank-you" of Nadler's new honest approach. "I'd rather watch crime TV than see you again," she sings. It is a shocking but humanizing charm to hear Nadler reference even basic technologies in song. More so than any of Nadler's records, July is a self-knowing and zenlike advocate of change; "I know better now/ I don't get as high," she sings on the intensely detailed breakup song "Firecrackers," pointing blame at herself as she steadies her own romantic mess of ghosts and lovers.
July is more tactile thanks to new producer Randall Dunn, best known for his work with metal bands such as Earth, Sunn O))), and Wolves in the Throne Room. (Dunn has also worked on folkier projects for Akron/Family and Six Organs of Admittance, but Nadler has ties to the black metal community, having collaborated with Xasthur and Locrian.) The pairing befits Nadler's sound. Like black metal, her songs are atmospheric, austere, and engulfing. At times, Nadler's resonant acoustic strums are coated thick, as if emboldened by the deep ebony outline of a Sharpie marker. Her gothic touchstones return more deliberately melodic, and the audible strength of her voice lends to a more idiosyncratic sound; even the quiet acoustic songs and piano ballad sound like they are set up on-stage. There are textured synths and the occasional electric guitar underneath, and the dramatic orchestral strings that underpin "1923" offer the song a sense of grandeur—"I called you from another century/ To see if the world had been kind and sweet," Nadler sings, offering not just an impressionistic line but a pointed one that sums up an essential idea about her work. It's Nadler's stacked, carefully pronounced harmonies, though, that really make these songs stand so tall.
The forward movement of July can be entrancing and propulsive: "Drive" and "I've Got Your Name" are evocative Americana road songs, the former cast with a cruel road-weary disaffection that she medicates naturally: "Still remember all the words/ To every song you ever heard," Nadler sings, conjuring more direct, intuitive emotions than usual. There are grittier details here, too: "Changed in a rest-stop into my dress/ Made sure not to touch the floor/ I've done that kind of thing before," she sings from the side of the I-95. Nadler always sounds like a journeying soul poet, but here she makes her rootless experience clear, as on the piercing "Holiday In": "You have a girl in every state/ I know I'm in the way."
"Dead City Emily" is July's hypnotic centerpiece, the realization of Nadler and Dunn's work at the stone-cold polar vortex of folk structure and doom metal mood. Nadler's rain-streaked music has an overcast glow here, one that comes with a first snowfall, the realism of dead leaves and paralyzing ice. Nadler has few direct contemporaries—Bill Callahan, Sharon Van Etten, or Alela Diane come to mind—but here, on July's most extreme song, she could sensibly share bills with, say, Iceage or Deafheaven. The song’s fictional conversation is made of inner-strife, trapped in a devil town and a dead-end love, jaded towards the innate beauty of trees or birds—images Nadler has used throughout her songbook. Nadler typically speaks through female figures, and while there is struggle in this exchange, there is also power, like she is teaching another woman or warning her in secret. July's stories are rich with such wisdom.” -Jenn Pelly, for Pitchfork.
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