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Listen Up: Marissa Nadler, Where Have I Been All Your Life?

November 16, 2009  |  8:00am
Listen Up: Marissa Nadler, Where Have I Been All Your Life?

Two Saturday nights ago, the night before my birthday, I'd had two tacos and two margaritas and I was at The Earl in Atlanta with my boyfriend Joe when I decided that I was going to love Marissa Nadler forever.

She was sandwiched between an unfamiliar opener—a girl whose every song seemed to begin with "Woke up this morning..." and then just go on far too long after that—and Alela Diane, who I already loved, who was the point of Joe and me being there. Before the show, Marissa Nadler wandered around the empty, dark room that got no darker and hardly less empty as the night went on, drinking a Blue Moon or something else with an orange slice in it, floating around in a long dark violet dress, looking a little severe. I'd never listened to any song she'd ever written before, just heard her cover of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer.” Neil Young fans can kind of be dudey dudes so when I find other girls that like him, I like them more. That's kind of unfair but it's hardly ever led me astray.

Joe—who, I think, feels the same way—has one of Nadler's albums and when I told him she was playing before Alela he kind of scrunched up his face and said, "Her songs are really fucking sad." For some reason that struck me as a bad thing but I should have known it shouldn't have, just like I should have listened to her at, oh, say any point in time between 2004 and that afternoon. But it happens, you know? (Maybe you don't know: I miss things. We miss things. Ha, whoops! Hello, fellow humans.)

And so anyway, there she was all of a sudden, tottering onstage with her guitar and setting down her beer, her hair a wild dark seaweed tangle all around her head. I don't remember how her first song sounded but I remember how I felt, how my beer was held still at half-mast against my chest, warming against my palm, how the room got fuzzy at the edges of my vision and how the blurriness would become at some points so total that all I could see was her right hand twisting in and around itself in a delicate claw against her strings. Her mouth was small even when it was open and her eyes were mostly trained downward, on her guitar or on the mic, almost straight down her curved nose most of the time. When her voice came out I expected smoke to come out with it, like her lungs were a furnace.

I watched a documentary about Joan Baez a few weeks ago, so it was hard to not think of her when I was looking up at Nadler, her hair dark and long, her eyes stormy and uncertain. Like really young Baez, she doesn't perform so much as just play. And like Baez, she does not have a big huge voice, not a voice that knocks down walls or elicits comparisons to gale-force winds or anything, but it's dense and potent and sounds like she's trying to work some poison out of her body. She sang like she was in a half-trance, like a cobra wavering above the brim of a snake-charmer's basket—she'd pull back from the mic between lines, quick-stepping back in her high-heeled black oxfords, to bend at her waist and tease out some fast burst of chords from her guitar. She dipped deep down into all her vowels in a way that's not quite Southern, not quite anything I could place.

She told us she was shy, that the stage fright never goes away, that she was in a car wreck the day before and was still shaken up, and it wasn't until she assured us that she wasn't gunning for our pity that I even considered she might be.

When she brought out her band it was two guys, one on electric guitar and one on bass who also made some spooky sounds with a cymbal and a shaker—she introduced him as "Jonas Haskins, formerly of the doom-metal band Earth," and Joe and I both thought surely she was joking. She wasn't, and now I see how it's perfect. People call her "dream-folk" but I'm not so sure. Her songs are nightmares, if anything, littered with dead bodies and skulls and undertakers, old rotten relics, coffins and rivers of dirt. Almost the very last thing you'd want to fill your Saturday night with, which is maybe why hardly anyone was there, and why most of the people who were there found it more enjoyable to talk all through the set, throwing beer bottles in trash cans so loud whole words were blotched out from the songs as the glass echoed in the deep plastic caverns.

Her words all hit hard and sharp like diamonds but the space between them was exquisite, too—patient silences, geologically unhurried.

Joe and I kept elbowing each other over whether to call out for "Cortez the Killer" but then she and her non-doom-metal-guitar-player played "Oh Lonesome Me," a cover of a Neil Young cover of a Don Gibson song. She put down her guitar and just sang, her arms floating around, looking for but not finding somewhere to rest. She sounded more tortured than anyone else I've ever heard sing the song before—like she really, really thought she was a fool for staying in and having none—so that was enough, maybe even better.

When I realize I've missed someone, realize all the time I've wasted not having their songs in my life, there's always a moment of self-kicking guilt but it goes away pretty quick, replaced by a kind of gratefulness for the hugeness of all the music in the world. It can feel, sometimes, like I've reached the outer limits of what I can love and what there is to love. I work between wavering towers of jewel cases with sometimes three or four songs pushing their way at me at once and sometimes my ears feel dull and tired, like untasting gluttons. It's always good to be reminded that I haven't yet and will never hit that outer limit, that the people I miss will always be there waiting for me in some half-empty bar at the back of an East Atlanta burger place on a chilly Saturday night in November.

It's also always good to be reminded that the entire catalog of anyone who can kick out a cover of “Cortez the Killer” like Nadler did should be sought out immediately.

If you've missed her, too, I can recommend her two newest albums: Songs III: Bird on the Water, which came out in 2007, and Little Hells, from earlier this year. She has two other albums, too, though I haven't found them yet—wavering towers of jewel cases and all that. I have a feeling they're probably excellent as well, but at this point, what's a little more waiting to find out for sure?

Listen to Marissa Nadler's Little Hells above, and hear her cover Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" here:

Rachael Maddux is Paste’s assistant editor. Her column appears at PasteMagazine.com every Monday.

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