Maybe this is a wild misreading, but Marissa Nadler doesn’t get nearly enough credit—or any at all, really—for having a sense of humor. Her wit is as dry as it as subtle on her eighth album, a collection of songs that are also disconsolate and foreboding. Those traits are how the Boston singer is more generally known, and for good enough reason: Nadler favors a harrowing folk sound that she calls “slow music,” full of spectral, minor-key musical arrangements that emphasize guitars, piano and strings. She rarely uses drums, which sometimes gives the impression that her songs are untethered to anything more than her voice.
Nadler’s vocals are at once soft and steely on lyrics with a poetic, sometimes gothic streak. It’s a very intentional, stylized approach, which makes her flashes of wit all the more startling. Yet there’s a droll undertone to parts of For My Crimes. On “All Out of Catastrophes,” Nadler ratchets up the melodrama to teetering heights, and when her lover mumbles another woman’s name in his sleep, she breaks the tension by observing, “It was the nicest thing you said.” She mentions someone wanting to fake his death “again” on the quietly poppy “Flamethrower,” and offers a skeptical rebuke in the title of “Are You Really Gonna Move to the South?” It’s sensual and melancholy, and Nadler’s voice floats atop fingerpicked acoustic guitar and an aching high harmony part.
There are darker themes on For My Crimes. Nadler sings the title track from the perspective of a death row inmate pleading to not be remembered for his transgressions. Her vocals are calm and matter-of-fact, and Angel Olsen contributes a harmony part mixed far enough back that it hovers like a shadow. “I Can’t Listen to Gene Clark Anymore” captures the feeling of swearing off a favorite singer whose music dredges up once-fond memories, with trebly electric guitar strumming, sad, spiraling violins and plus vocals from Sharon Van Etten. Album closer “Say Goodbye to That Car” is unexpectedly poignant as Nadler thinks back on her associations with the old beater, and turns the odometer reading into a hypnotic refrain over a spare guitar part. The riff on “Blue Vapor” strains against the limits of the song, injecting a sense of urgency, while Nadler and guest Kristin Kontrol of Dum Dum Girls send their voices spiraling upward, alternately intertwining and tangling. It’s perhaps the most forceful moment on an album built on understated power, evocative lyrics and Nadler’s lithe voice—and, just maybe, a hint or two of sly humor.
Listen to Marissa Nadler’s 2013 Daytrotter session below: