Marissa Nadler singing the word “radio” may be one of the music events of the year. On “The Sun Always Reminds Me of You,” a standout from her self-titled fifth album, she splits those three syllables in a way that makes the word sound startlingly new: something like “ray-adee-ohhhh,” although that transcription doesn’t come close to doing justice to her phrasing. She sings each long vowel sound with the slightest hesitation, placing the sound just behind the beat to the give the word and the song a singsong lilt. It’s possibly the slyest, catchiest and loveliest hook on this immensely confident and haunting album.
That vocal approach is a large part of the Boston artist’s appeal: Nadler sings the way a ghost haunts a house, insinuating herself into the song and making familiar elements like “radio”—or, on “Alabaster Queen,” the word “queen”—sound uncanny. Perhaps that’s why she has been able to outlive the freak-folk trend of the mid-’00s when more popular artists like Devendra Banhart and CocoRosie have lost much of their creative momentum. Even leapfrogging from one label to the next, Nadler has managed to find new corners of her psych-folk sound to explore, so that her somewhat limited range never sounds old, her songs never threadbare.
For Marissa Nadler, she took to Kickstarter to raise funds to record with her longtime producer Brian McTeer in Philadelphia. Perhaps beholden to her fans, who donated roughly $17,000 to the project, Nadler emerges with her strongest album yet, a beguiling distillation of her quirks and concerns that nevertheless reveals some new tricks. She nods to Leonard Cohen on the spectral “Baby, I Will Leave You in the Morning,” whose careful pace and synth sunbursts suggest a gravitational pull away from a lover: “Baby you need to forgive me, been a sinner all my life, you see,” Nadler sings with a steeliness she’s rarely shown in the past. Her edge-of-the-precipice performance prevents the song from stumbling into melodrama.
Country flourishes of pedal steel and acoustic guitar illuminate “Mr. John Lee Revisited” and “The Sun Always Reminds Me of You,” while “Puppet Master” slips into a quiet bridge that burbles with xylophone and hushed reggae rhythms. Of course, Nadler’s newfound range would be academic if those sounds didn’t support her lyrics so intuitively and if her songs didn’t sound so haunted by old lovers and severed connections. Marissa Nadler hints at larger tragedies and losses, implying an overarching break-up narrative that gives each song added force. In that regard, the self-titled aspect is telling, as this album truly represents an artist coming into her own.