Monday, January 24, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1534: Marissa Nadler

I’m just back from visiting my family out of town. When we make the trip, Sheila and I select five albums each for the car, and then alternate picking off the other person’s list as we drive. We usually get through about eight, and here are the ones we listened to this time around:

  • London Grammar, Californian Soil
  • Shaggy, Hotshot
  • Eric B. & Rakim, Don’t Sweat the Technique
  • Joe Jackson, Look Sharp!
  • Leonard Cohen, Various Positions
  • Jason Isbell, The Nashville Sound
  • The Wooden Sky, When Lost at Sea
  • The Streets, A Grand Don’t Come for Free

The trip also has a couple of lengthy ferry rides, so I had plenty of time to plug in the headphones and grok this next record in its fullness.

Disc 1534 is….  The Saga of Mayflower May

Artist: Marissa Nadler

Year of Release: 2005

What’s up with the Cover? A portrait of Ms. Nadler in a cameo style. She looks alluring and vulnerable with a hint of danger and mystery around the eyes. This combination is also a good summation of her music.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve been digging through Nadler’s back catalogue since about 2018. Her albums aren’t always easy to find on CD, and this one eluded me for quite a while. Then a few months ago I found second-hand copies of it and “Songs III: Bird on the Water” in my local record store and snapped both of them up.

How It Stacks Up: With the addition of these latest two records (and a subsequent decision to keep “Little Hells” (Disc 1284) despite my disappointment), I now have seven Marissa Nadler albums. This isn’t all of them (she has released 10) but it is all the ones I want. Of those seven, “The Saga of Mayflower May” comes in at…#1!

Ratings: 4 stars

If Edgar Allan Poe was reincarnated as a 21st century female folk singer, the result would be Marissa Nadler. Like Poe her work is Gothic, moody and saturated with beautiful imagery that is slightly unsettling when seen in a certain light.

“The Saga of Mayflower May” is Nadler’s second studio release. The ethereal vocals and sparse echo that made her debut, “Ballads of Living and Dying” (reviewed back at Disc 1319) so enchanting are once again present, but the songwriting is noticeably better.

The album immediately immerses you in light guitar picking patterns that insistently return to the root note, creating an effect not unlike a burbling creek flush with spring runoff.  It is strongly reminiscent of early Leonard Cohen (Nadler would go on to cover Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” on her next record).

Soaring on top of that low guitar is Nadler’s elfin vocals. These are the vocals that you imagine hearing in the wind when you’re lost in the woods, full of mystery, majesty and more than a little dread.

One of the record’s best is “Mr. John Lee (Velveteen Rose)” a complicated love triangle between the song’s titular subject, his wife Marie and a third woman telling the tale. Like a lot of Marissa Nadler songs it ends badly for everyone, but it gets there with beauty and grace. The way the first stanza practically sighs, falling on a minor note as Nadler sings “I did not care for your wedding ring/But I did care…for Marie.” you get an early sense of the regret and tragedy will envelope these star-crossed lovers.

Damsels in the Dark” follows; a perfectly succinct 94 second ditty about loss and parting of a woman swearing off her lover and all memory associated with them. Or as she sings it:

“Photographs of your face
Against the wind
Against the rain
I'm gonna burn them all
And bury your name.”

Nadler’s imagery is highly evocative throughout. On “Calico” she sings of a woman moving to the mountains “with a box of chisels sharp” and “a box of books so dark.” We don’t know specifically how that woman’s madness and melancholy will unfurl up in some isolated cabin, but your mind wanders dark passages seeking the answer nonetheless.

Like most of the songs on the album, you are never given a full explanation of what is happening to these characters. You see it all out of the corner of your eyes, feeling the emotional undercurrent of the experience more strongly than the main narrative. The effect keeps drawing you deeper and deeper on each listen, at first to divine the narrative of the tales, but eventually just for the delight in exploring the mysteries of the heart.

Best tracks: Mr. John Lee (Velveteen Rose), Damsels in the Dark, Lily Henry and the Willow Trees, Yellow Light, Calico

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