Master of crazy-songs lets the crazy master her
Legend has it that Nina Nastasia has never bought a record in her life. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant; like most myths, it highlights an important truth beyond itself—in this case, that the singer/songwriter is practically incomparable to anyone else making music today. She’s been compared to everyone from Leonard Cohen to PJ Harvey, but nothing quite fits.
Nastasia’s first few albums were thoroughly disconcerting, both musically and lyrically. On her 2000 debut Dogs and her much-lauded 2003 release Run to Ruin, she dealt heavily in alienation and paranoia—and while this was certainly nothing new in the songwriter-slinging-a-guitar world, she carried these ideas out to their logical conclusion—musical schizophrenia. On both albums, Nastasia dragged her hapless listeners through the same emotions she sang about, employing minor-key piano crashes, wavering bowed-saw whines and string melodies meandering through her lyrics. Producer Steve Albini, who’s helmed all of her albums, captured every crack and tremor in her thin voice, adding to the feeling that Nastasia was powerless in the face of the terror she detailed; it’s impossible to settle into a groove and listen passively.
And while her stream-of-consciousness aesthetic was similar to Harvey’s (especially on Polly Jean’s 1993 album Rid of Me, also produced by Albini), the bleakness running through Nastasia’s early albums was subtler and more nuanced. Harvey’s growling demands of “Lick my legs, I’m on fire” and “Rub it ’till it bleeds” over cacophonous electric crashes would have no place in Dogs’ nursery-rhyme tinted universe, full of saddle shoes and sandboxes and wishing wells. And that’s what makes Nastasia’s earlier creations so appealing. She dealt in the domestic and familiar, which made her dark vein of creeping paranoia all the more intriguing. When she suddenly belted “Parachute me down, to that cold, cold undergound” you wanted nothing more than to follow her.
This crawling darkness died down on 2006’s On Leaving, as Nastasia strummed out lyrics about road tripping and picnicking by lakes; even the haunting “Counting Up Your Bones” dreamily circled a simple chorus. Discontent bubbled below the surface of “Treehouse Song” in a few quick minor piano chords and some ominous drum flourishes, but it seemed that Nastasia’s demons had at last settled down and started taking their meds. But on Outlaster, her new album, they’re back in full force.
It’s one thing to craft each song around the idea of discomfort. It’s another to make an album so jarring that it feels bipolar. Simple opener “Cry, Cry, Baby” harks back to On Leaving; it’s tear-soaked enough with its repetitive lament of “You’re my own true love / and I know I can’t change,” but the riffs are balanced and the cellos, while melodramatic, are tethered to the overall melody. Things get weirdly stable on “Moves Away,” in which Nastasia sings that now there are “no peely cracks in the walls” or “terror in the sky,” her voice melting into the screechy sing-song question of “How long can you last?”
Two tracks later comes “What’s Out There,” the most paranoid (and downright terrifying—I locked all my doors while listening to it) song of her career. It’s a nonsensical, claustrophobic rant in which the familiar domesticity of “a wall, a window, a natty garden turning hotly in the heat” melts away to reveal something “creeping and green, wild and unseen.” Every kind of diagnosable neurosis runs wild on this four-minute mess. “Is there anyone like me?” Nastasia pleads, before turning to dystopian horror. “I’d put a mask on before the atmosphere out there could kill me.” Meanwhile, violent plucking and orchestral swells push and pull the melody like a churning rip-tide, dying out around the halfway mark as violin squeaks and ambient plinks and taps take over the music like thousands of scaly, suction-toed creatures swarming the narrator’s tiny shelter and squirming their way through the cracks. Fittingly, the song ends with violence: “Oh window, window, I have to smash you out.” It could hardly be more over-the-top if she screamed Harvey’s refrain of “Rub it ‘til it bleeds!”
Though Outlaster certainly has some beautiful singles (“You’re A Holy Man” and the title track, especially) the album stretches too far in either direction; trying to encompass both naïve optimism and full-on straightjacket crazy. Maybe Nastasia’s gotten tired of her nuanced tales, or maybe this album is an even more post-modern take on the real effects of mental imbalance over time—ambivalence and exhaustion.