On her moody eighth album, the Boston singer-songwriter examines the icy terrain of marital strife through the lens of her habitual gothic folk.
For many years, Marissa Nadler wrote songs in the manner of someone rummaging through a box of antique photos. From the dusty depths of memory, she plucked characters at random—some real, some fictional—and spun them into cobwebbed stories of love, longing, and loss. Over the course of her career, the dramatis personae of Nadler’s songs shifted to the periphery; she actively pursued more approachable subjects, and her own voice grew stronger and more centered in her writing. Though still most comfortable in the sparing, spooky goth-folk cabin she built with her very first album, on For My Crimes, her eighth, Nadler is confessional and direct.
The opener and title track of For My Crimes is a microcosm of Nadler’s evolution. It began as a challenge set forth by her husband to write in the voice of a person on death row. The role-playing enabled Nadler to access her own feelings of guilt, and while the fictitious parameters of the song are outlined in its lyrics (“When they take me down the corridor/And secure my wrists with ties,” Nadler sings in its opening lines), they ultimately feel more introspective than narrative. On a record that is largely an examination of marital strife, Nadler begins with an admission of wrongdoing.
The songs that follow range in scope from atmospheric brooding on “Blue Vapor” to hyper-specific autobiography on “Said Goodbye to That Car.” Throughout, Nadler deftly documents what she describes as the space between love and breakup—the liminal zone plagued by skirmishes and strain and all sorts of relationship hangnails, those small aggravations that stay sore far longer than you expect them to. Nothing matches the opener for macabre, but the tone is certainly moody. “Moonlit skies upon us,” Nadler sings on “You’re Only Harmless When You Sleep,” teeing up a storybook picture of romance, then smashing it to icy bits with what follows: “There’s a freeze over our sheets.” Similarly biting is the setup on “Interlocking,” a somber tune bearing the fingerprints of Nadler’s country influences. On it, she borrows a term that typically litters love songs—describing gazes, hands, and hearts—and flips it to describe feeling tethered to a relationship.
The closest For My Crimes comes to a climax is on “Blue Vapor,” a little less than halfway through. Nadler’s words here describe personal erosion; around her, strings plummet, woodwinds snarl, and thudding percussion (contributed by Hole’s Patty Schemel) adds considerable weight. It’s an instrumental moment whose intensity is never quite matched lyrically, beyond the melodrama of the opener. Nadler exposes fissures, not faults, on this album. She articulates her pain points subtly, as on “I Can’t Listen to Gene Clark Anymore,” where she examines the threat of separation through the corollary, but objectively lesser, threat of bitter memories tarnishing once-shared favorite songs. On “All Out of Catastrophes,” Nadler characterizes a fight via its least hurtful spar: her partner naming another woman in his sleep. The understatedness of it all almost scans as complacence—a shrugging, this is just the way things are attitude—until a faint hope for healing surfaces in the record’s final minutes. The penultimate track, “Flamethrower,” cites the possibility for new growth on scorched earth. On closer “Said Goodbye to That Car,” Nadler’s car crapping out marks the end of an era and implies a fresh start to follow.
Nadler is, in fact, optimistic. She recently indicated that, after For My Crimes, she would be done with her “saddest records” for a while. It’s hard to imagine what an upbeat Marissa Nadler album might sound like, but her willingness to move in a new, brighter direction after finding such success in gothic reverie is admirable and likely for the best. Though her albums to date have each shown growth and subtle variation, 14 years into her career, Nadler still has plenty of terrain left to explore. The trouble with being an artist known for consistency is that, at some point, consistency can begin to look a lot like predictability.
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