There remains in some circles an oft-cited misconception that happy people donít often make good art. Birthed with reference to the tumultuous psyches of figures like Van Gogh, the hypothesis isnít without its arguments (had Kafka been a carefree guy, itís safe to say his writing mightíve been a tad less compelling), but it seems a tad presumptuous to go too far in correlating artistic output with psychological wellbeing. So what of Marissa Nadler, contemporary folkstress? Nadlerís always been a songwriter and performer of emotional heft, but 2007ís Songs III: Bird on the Water was packed with a markedly haunting pathos, musing on death, sadness and mourning with an elegiac beauty. On Little Hells, Nadlerís latest effort, the tone isnít always so somber, but the disc is hardly sunnier than its predecessor. By all accounts, Nadlerís not a gloomy person, sheís simply someone adept at getting in touch with lifeís darker side, and an artist skillful enough to make exceedingly palpable the emotion with which she imbues her work.
Little Hells may not deviate much tonally from Songs III, but the execution and arrangement of Nadlerís compositions is where this disc makes a departure. "Rosary" and "Mistress" feature steady percussion amidst the ether, and Nadlerís folk is garnished with a ghostly country vibe on more than one occasion. By and large, these are welcome additions to Nadlerís sound; though sheís an adroit guitar player, the augmentation of Nadlerís acoustic with a broader timbral palette is often a boon to her musicís striking atmosphere.
Nadler has used synthesizers in the past for understated, if effective, accompaniment, a more evident manifestation of the spectral flavor her music often contains. Little Hells features more of the same, but the way she employs the instrument couldnít be more different. "Mary Comes Alive" is the albumís real surprise, opening with a drum machine rhythm straight out of 1985, and developing into a synthesizer-heavy, full-band performance far more reminiscent of a band like Echo and the Bunnymen than the folk tradition to which Nadler is often linked. Itís a gutsy move, a slice of stylistic dissonance. The discís title track eases back into more familiar territory, and while "Mary Comes Alive" may not be one of the albumís better tracks, itís one of the more memorable.
Like those of the Greek sirens, Nadlerís sonorous voice often leads its admirer to dark places. Little Hells brings little risk of shipwreck, but her rich vocals can be bewitching nonetheless, and no matter the instrumental additions or stylistic explorations this new album might bring, at its center is Nadler and her acoustic guitar, an enticing pairing, to be sure. Little Hells, for all its melancholy, gives Nadlerís fans another reason to celebrate; any continuation of the momentum birthed with Songs III is a happy thing, indeed.