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Marissa Nadler - Songs III: Bird on the Water

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Artist: Marissa Nadler

Album: Songs III: Bird on the Water

Label: Kemado

Review date: Aug. 22, 2007

The truth about Marissa Nadler is twisted deep inside her stark and desolate folk songs. With each composition, a persona is developed – dark, world-weary and fragile – carefully exploring life’s regrets and the jagged shards of memory that haunt her troubled mind. There is an intensity and focus to Song III’s lyrical content that negates the importance of whether Nadler has actually lived all of the varied experiences she sings about. Tom Waits was never really the hobo-transient that lived in Raindogs or Swordfishtrombones and Robbie Robertson had spent almost no time in the American south when he wrote the rustic vignettes of The Band’s self-titled second album. The authenticity of these composers was never compromised by the gloriously rich fictions they created and Nadler’s music shows a similar aptitude for blending fantasy with poignant truth.

Songs III is a dense labyrinth of character sketches tied together by a singularity of emotion and subject matter. Nadler’s melancholia permeates every strand of the music – from the carefully plucked acoustic guitar to her reverb-laden vocals and the unexpected fits of dissonance provided by Philadelphia folk rockers Espers. In many ways, the production is characteristic of the late ’60s folk music Nadler is so indebted to, particularly Leonard Cohen’s first album The Songs of Leonard Cohen, in which various acoustic and orchestral instruments carefully surround and react to his voice and lyrics. As isolated and domineering as Cohen, Nadler sits squarely in the center of everything, with eerie organs and mandolins emerging to greet her mournful croon.

“Diamond Heart” brims with delicate imagery chronicling the fading years in the life of an aging chanteuse whose various affairs and travels fail to erase the memory of a lost love: “I had a man in every town / And I thought of you each time I tore off my gown / But I look for you in the traffic seas / And the bars I’m always frequenting / Your father died some months ago / And we scattered his ashes in the snow.” She looks for her former lover in the dive bars and seedy neighborhoods that now comprise her daily existence, but fails to find any hint of redemption and is consumed by the loneliness and alienation she now feels. It is a stunningly powerful composition, oblique in construction, but instantly evocative of both time and place. Being the first song on the album, “Diamond Heart” sets a difficult standard for the rest of the music, but Songs III is filled with these sort of revelatory little pieces that fit together as an air-tight whole.

“Silvia” marks a subtle change in the album’s texture, straying slightly from the morbid thematic content to create a mood that is whimsical and almost jubilant. The light palpitations of an organ accompany a hymn-like melody, Nadler’s only overt attempt at catharsis. “Bird On Your Grave” is another brilliant change of pace, with alarming bursts of feedback, thudding drums and dueling electric guitars dissecting the lilting funerary waltz. The use of traditional rock instrumentation fearlessly flaunts any notion that Nadler is some sort of folk revivalist, and the overall feeling of these neo-folk rock excursions is much more modern – think Cat Power’s You Are Free rather than Fairport Convention’s What We Did On Our Holidays.

With Songs III, Nadler emerges as a fully developed talent on par with the best of this decade’s new folk artists. She hides much of herself in a complex web of stories and personas, but each lyrical fragment helps to create a more complete picture of who she is as an artist and person. Her ability to inhabit the characters, instead of merely writing about them, develops an inextricable relationship between author and creation that makes her music compelling and vital.

By Matthew Kivel

Other Reviews of Marissa Nadler

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The Saga of Mayflower May

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