Read reviews of Marissa Nadler‘s past releases on the Internet and find the often-used adjective “haunting.” “Her vocals are haunting,” people write. I thought about this point while listening to her new record July (Scared Bones/Bella Union) in full for the first time, pondering how the adjective would take its form.
In July, Nadler recalls painful stories of the past while repeating lines that burn into the listener’s mind (especially in the songs “Drive,” “Was It A Dream,” and “Nothing In My Heart”). The style in which Nadler sings is typically drawn out, but the tone of her voice is urgent, as if calling for action or change that might never occur. There’s an authenticity about her technique, like she’s singing the words for the first time, overcome with emotion, mentally in tune. It is the nature of the recording however that ultimately haunts the listener; thanks to Randall Dunn and Avast! Studios, Nadler’s really captured a beautifully dark, rich sound–mostly driven by careful piano and guitar work–that sticks with the listener, long after the album’s through. And that is how we can call it haunting.
July is Nadler’s sixth studio album, featuring 11 songs about relinquished, disagreeable love. Whether July‘s stories of dysfunctional relationships are those of Nadler’s, her loved ones, or someone else’s, they’re incredibly powerful; it’s hard to listen to the songs without imagining one’s self in the place of the narrator. The power in the lyrics lies in the fact that she’s singing of the past–lessons she (or the character) has learned, and people, places, or things of which she’s had to let go, but then she moves on. The songs are reflective; the character isn’t drowning in immediate pain or confusion, but confronting hurtful parts of the past and acknowledging change. For example, the song “Firecrackers”:
July 4th of last year we spilled all the blood / How’d you spend your summer days? / I know better now I don’t call you up at night / Cause baby you’re a ghost and I have changed.
It is in “Firecrackers,” the third track of July, that the listener learns the reasoning behind the album’s title. As the lyrics suggest, Independence Day marks the collapse of the the failing relationship(s) in July. If by this song Leonard Cohen’s influence in Nadler’s writing isn’t apparent, listen closely. “Firecrackers” musically accomplishes what Cohen’s “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” achieves, with uncomplicated guitar work that lets the story come to life.
One reoccurring topic in Nadler’s lyrics that appears to coincide with past despair is alcohol, whether it’s “drink[ing] more than your man could,” in “Drive,” “We have drunk our summers away” in “Firecrackers,” or “I called you when I was drunk all the time” in “Holiday in.” While listening to these lines, I remembered a conversation I’d had with Nadler when she played the Elliott Smith tribute in October. I was giving out drink tickets to artists and she didn’t want any. I asked her why and she told me she’d stopped drinking, that she’d been sober for a while, and was feelings really good about it. I was a little taken aback by her honesty, but grateful for it, having been trying to drink less for a long time myself. Knowing the personal, emotional nature of Nadler’s music, I was curious as to what her sobriety meant for her writing. I didn’t ask why she stopped drinking, but perhaps some of the stories in this record shed light on the matter.
If one assumes that July‘s songs “Desire” and “Holiday in” are autobiographical, then Nadler’s decision not to drink is impactful and even transformative. The aforementioned songs sound like the bottom of the bottom of a relationship that is eventually lost in an imbalance of affection and security. Nadler sings about pining for someone who is never really hooked, a relationship with bad communication that dissolves without a happy ending.
As an album, July doesn’t provide listeners with any obvious happy endings, but if there’s a song to musically close the album most positively, it’s “Nothing In My Heart.” The naked, heavenly piano chords paired with Nadler’s untouched vocals and a lyrically heavy-hitting refrain result in just over two minutes of absolutely beautiful songwriting (think Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins circa Rabbit Fur Coat). I mistakenly started playing this song while walking through a vacant train station in Germany one morning this winter, missing home and loved ones. This song triggers emotion. “Take a plane and I promise / to put honey in your jar / Maybe it’s the weather / But I’ve got nothing in my heart,” she sings. After a whole album full of feelings, one would think Nadler would choose a different final line, but there’s strength in her lyrics. She’s speaking in the present. Her words aren’t wavering.
In a recent interview, Nadler recalls music she listened to in her youth and treasures the notion of experiencing an album in full–how such listening can expose small details in songs that one might not otherwise access. July is an album that earns committed listens. Each song is so full of texture, emotion, musical mastery–to leave a track or a moment out would be incomplete.
Marissa Nadler is touring the United States and then Europe for this record. Find tour dates at the links below.