There are thousands of female singer-songwriters out there, every single one of them hoping to find a big break. Most never make it beyond their own bedrooms, and it’s really the cream of the crop that tend to get enough notice to earn a record deal. Even then your future is by no means set in stone, as underperforming to label expectations can result in the plug being pulled from your deal. This unfortunate reality is one that Marissa Nadler knows all too well. Kemado released her 2009 album “Little Hells”, and while it was met with solid praise by those that heard it, apparently not enough people did hear it to satisfy her financial backers. So upon being dropped by her label, Nadler went on the offensive and did something that was relatively unheard of at the time: she asked fans to donate money via Kickstarter to help fund her next record. After reaching her goal, the rest of the pieces slid into place and became her fifth full length album.
As with any artist, not just female singer-songwriters, consistent innovation is the key to survival. Turn in the same record 3 or 4 times and people will write you off. Marissa Nadler has done exactly what she’s needed to across four albums, and now her self-titled new one continues that evolution. While gentle acoustic guitar and that gorgeous voice of hers are still the two main attractions in her songs, “Little Hells” saw her moving towards more lush and varied instrumentation. That trend continues here, with doses of everything from vibraphones to orchestration and a light dose of synthesizers. She’s not so much using more of these extra elements, but rather better at implementing them than before. A song like “Puppet Master” is a solid example of that, moving from a light acoustic guitar shuffle into something a little more retro and sprightly with some added playfulness via vibraphone. The fluid tempo changes along with a mood shift are just a couple of the ways this is a continued innovation from what’s come before. The way that opening track “In Your Lair, Bear” steadily builds in intricacy over the song’s duration without ever rushing or sounding out of place is a great testament as well to her maturity as an artist. Most others would not have pulled that off with such grace and poise.
There’s not much to be said about the development of Nadler’s voice, primarily because her beautifully calm yet disaffected presence has not changed much, if at all. In her higher octave ranges she still sounds very precious a la Joanna Newsom, but the way she juxtaposes that with darker and colder imagery is what helps to set her apart. The biggest way Nadler has grown from her last album is via her lyrics. The very impersonal and story-filled songs of her past now remove character names and fanciful elements to actually use the word “I” a whole bunch. Descriptions too are far more down to earth and realistic. Rather than going off on some obtuse and illogical sweep of romanticism, here she sees the forest for the trees and no longer reaches to those heights. That’s less to say she sounds defeated but more to say these songs become more easily relatable because they seem like she’s actually experienced them. When you’ve never truly loved before, there’s a wide-eyed innocence that permeates your world view and tends to make you believe that you’ll wind up in some sweeping epic of a relationship that’s just like the stars on the movie screen. The older and wiser you become in the ways of love, or alternately speaking the more you’ve had your heart broken, the more you come to realize what the real lessons to be learned are. So with songs like “Alabaster Queen” and “Baby I Will Leave You in the Morning”, Nadler is dealing with some of the tougher aspects of dealings between men and women. Despite its title, “Wedding” is not all magic, flowers and endless love, even if the downer of an implication is that sometimes people get married for the wrong reasons. It’s unfortunate that Nadler isn’t a more upbeat person in her songs, though if she were many of these songs might not be as effective.
With “Marissa Nadler” comes something of a plea. In spite of all the kind words that have been said about her in the past, present and presumably future, the fact remains that she’s one of those artists that is beloved by those that have heard her. The issue seems to be that not enough people have heard her. Sure, she raised enough cash to make this new record, but it wasn’t enough to keep her contract the last time around. Now pretty much entirely independent, there’s a distinct lack of promotion that tends to go along with that. In all likelihood this won’t be the last album we hear from her, but she may have to go around with her hand out asking for money again to help raise money for it. The hope is she won’t need to do that. Maybe you buy two copies of the record and give one to a friend. Maybe you just tell some friends about her. Whatever you can do individually to help her out so we don’t lose a talent like hers. Strong female singer-songwriters are not a dime a dozen, and the more you listen to their individual records the more you realize that it takes a certain special something to really connect with you in a meaningful way. Cat Power has it. So does Feist and Sharon Van Etten. And Marissa Nadler has it as well. Open yourself up to that power by giving her album a try.