Marissa Nadler – July (Album review)

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If someone told you that the crushing weight of black metal could be melded to the austere spiritual nadir of doom, all without the use of a single distorted guitar riff, you might be inclined to disbelief.  If that same person told you these feelings could live inside the voice of one woman who, apart from channeling them vocally, could also bleed them from her hands into the picked strings of an acoustic guitar, you might just dismiss it all as crazy.

Marissa Nadler’s haunting repertoire of folky Americana and murder balladry has been managing this unlikely feat since 2004.  Between then and now she has released six albums of maudlin, Joni Mitchell/Leonard Cohen inspired loveliness, spanning themes as divergent as Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, as well as a host of her own personal experiences.  Her seventh and latest album, July, comes to us by way of Sacred Bones Records.  Produced by Randall Dunn, best known for his work with Sunn O))), Earth, and Wolves in the Throne Room, there is a connection between Marissa Nadler and extreme metal.  Most notably, she contributed vocals to one-man depressive black metal project Xasthur back in 2010.  Thematically, her own dark musings on life and loss share a certain kinship with the isolation and gloom of darker, more miserable forms of music.

The songs on July echo with the pain and sorrow of modern life, but the languid meter of Nadler’s vocals seems to come at us from across decades of time.  Listening to it is like flipping through the creaking, crumbling pages of a Depression-era photo album.  Each song is like its own dog-eared black-and-white picture of lives long lost and people missed.  Their gentle character wrings more than just pain from their depths however.  There is also a sense of a new beginning, of lessons learned from the wars we wage that raise our chin and gird us for the future.

Particularly reflective is “Dead City Emily”, as eerie and transformative as its lyrics, evoking a more brooding Pink Floyd with its sonic flourishes a la “Welcome to the Machine”. Each song has wonderful depth, with multiple instruments adding to their overall atmospheres.  These added touches, both elegant and sublimely executed, only seek to buoy the yearning ghostly lilt of Nadler’s singing voice.  Wikipedia lists her as a mezzo-soprano, but such a designation is like assigning a meaning to a sunset.  The transparent abandon she conveys in the stunning ode of “Firecrackers” is matched only by the damaged dignity of her multi-tracked vocals on “I’ve Got Your Name”.  Accompanied by a lonesome piano and some subtle keys, Nadler takes us to rest-stops along cold asphalt highways, winter howling around us as betrayal burns within.

“1923” speaks of a call from another century, when the bitter fruits of a not-yet saddened life were still sweet.  Nadler’s mournful croon dances over the somber folk arrangements like the wind over empty streets.  It is impossible not to be drawn into the quiet storm at the heart of this tune, as is also the case with opener “Drive”, whose twanging guitar intro gives way to Nadler sounding like a particularly maudlin country singer.  The bridge and refrain pour over you and lead you on, but not without uneasy feelings for what you are leaving behind.  Another album highlight, “Was it a Dream”, treads the corridors of loss with a more catchy, accessible tempo.  Nadler’s angelic voice floats over the most rock oriented guitar parts on the album, weighing memories of a hurtful relationship combining longing with rage, self-reflection with the grace of finally moving on.

There are few recording artists tapping into the emotional wellspring Nadler draws upon so effortlessly.  Her latest masterpiece is full of self-reflection and a knowing rueful spite for those who have hurt her.  As a whole, July transports the listener across old fields of memory, where flowers wilt in beds of dead leaves and in the distance trains rumble past gutted buildings.  Her voice carries like winter sunlight over tombstones, highlighting the names of the dead without warming them.  Her style emits a depth of feeling that must be heard to be believed.  Cryptic Rock gives this album 5 out of 5 stars.

Sacred Bones Records
Sacred Bone Records
Review written by Nicholas Franco

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