Wednesday, May 29, 2024

CD Odyssey Disc 1740: Marissa Nadler

After three reviews of early nineties records, I’m now on a 2020s streak of three, and maybe counting. Here’s the latest in the string.

Disc 1740 is…The Path of the Clouds

Artist: Marissa Nadler

Year of Release: 2021

What’s up with the Cover?  The bewitching beauty of Marisssa Nadler. Even on a cover that looks like a bootlegged black and white photocopy of the original (n.b. this is the original) Nadler still looks amazing.

Maybe the grey-out effect is because she’s in one of the clouds referenced in the album title. Or maybe she’s a ghost. The latter suggestion would not surprise me.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve been a Marissa Nadler fan since 2018, and this was me buying her latest record when it came out. I bought this album from Bandcamp, which is a great way to support independent artists.

How It Stacks Up: I have eight Marissa Nadler records. I like them all, but competition is fierce for my affections, and “The Path of the Clouds” could only land at #7, displacing “Little Hells” in the process.

Rating: 3 stars

Marissa Nadler started out in 2004 making spooky indie folk records. 17 years later, “the Path of the Clouds” provides a spooky folk record with a whole lot of extra production. So much so that it may no longer be folk, but when I ask myself “just what the hell is this night-tinged wonderland?” the only answer coming back at me is “folk”.

That answer lies buried under many more layers of sound than you would have encountered early in Nadler’s career, but the bones are still there. Given Nadler’s penchant for Gothic murder ballads, actual bones are not unexpected.

Case in point the first song on the record, “Bessie Did You Make it?” a song about…well…it’s a mystery. The opening stanza sets it up:

“In 1928, Glen and Bessie met their fate
From Twin Falls down the Colorado
In a handmade canoe, what happened to these two?
Is up to who you ask, but full of sorrow”

And despite various eyewitness accounts, supposition and some bones in an old boathouse, you just never know. Something terrible, dark and tragically compelling is all we’re sure of.

We’re sure of that much because Nadler’s ethereal, breathy vocals tell us tales that only the ghosts of past tragedy could evoke. Listening to Nadler is like following a will-o-the-wisp into a swamp; diffuse, dangerous and irresistible.

“The Path of the Clouds” never again lands the same level of excellence as this first-rate opener, but there are other moments worth recommending. “Couldn’t Have Done the Killing” somehow manages to make its refrain of “leave your weapons at the door” about as menacing as a weaponless room can be. You get the impression that minus guns and knives, the room in question has weapons aplenty for those who take a misstep. Couldn’t have done the killing…yeah right. When it comes to a Nadler song, someone could always have done the killing.

There is a lot of atmospheric quality to the record, and while songs tend to blend one into the other, they’re intended to do exactly that. Listening to “The Path of Clouds” is like a midnight swim in the ocean. It is the vastness of all that liquid space that creates the appeal, not any specific landmark that might distract you by day.

Listening to Marissa Nadler “singles” takes away from this magic immersive quality, and I was glad to be trapped with the record for a number of listens. While I sometimes wished for a starker, stripped-down production, over time I came to appreciate that the ambience was a feature, not a bug. On earlier records she lands the balance a bit better, and I found the low end a bit too light in the mix to hold the record in balance, but overall it was a minor quibble.

Over repeat listens I progressively let go of preconceived notions on where each instrument should be in the mix. The record is better when you surrender to this vibe and let yourself sink through the subtlety of it all. Start with Nadler’s high head voice up there in the path of the clouds and sink through the instruments to low bass notes that rumble in the deep like a drowned ghost, moaning and demanding to be heard and loved again.

Best tracks: Bessie Did You Make It?, Couldn’t Have Done the Killing, Lemon Queen 

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