The most damning criticism you can give artists is the label of cliché. Something about delivering the expected just hits at the creative gut in a way that nothing else does. Consider the tragic art exhibit you go to where the patrons are bored because they knew what they were getting the moment they walked through the door. By the end of many retrospectives, you see how paint-by-numbers an artist has become.
If an artist does what they do particularly well, you don’t mind when they rehash the same territory. Renzo Piano doesn’t stretch his comfort zone all that much-most of his buildings can be described as lines, lines, lines, lines-but I’ve yet to see anything of his that I don’t enjoy.
So when you hear Marissa Nadler‘s fourth album is a quiet effort that relies heavily on her lullaby-ready voice, your jaw probably hasn’t dropped and your eyes might even be rolling toward the back of your head. But true to form, it’s a splendid surprise that sidesteps cliché and comes out a winner.
On paper, Nadler’s Little Hells looks like the perfect mix of ingredients for a college town’s coffee house open mic nightmare. A soft-voiced songwriter whose album consists mostly of equally soft acoustic guitar and piano? Find me a diary entry and let me at that stage! Somehow, it teeters on the edge of self parody at several moments, but miraculously it falls on the better side more often than not.
Undoubtedly the album is an intimate affair that plays better on your headphones as you walk a snowy street than over the speakers at the gym, so anyone averse to subtlety will not find much to enjoy here. Little Hellsdemands a determined listener, not just to follow the vignettes Nadler describes but also to understand what she’s saying. On “Loner”, Nadler’s vocals undergo such a heavy echo layering you find yourself leaning in to the speakers to catch what she said. It’s discernible, but only after a little ear-perking.
In Nadler’s strongest moments, she dabbles in alt-country songwriting that would make Neko Case proud. “River of Dirt” has Nadler quietly describing the macabre of expired love as it mimics life, “We are all so painfully alone / burdened by rivers of dirt and fire / we return to the ground when we retire”. The quick guitar and soft drums call to mind Austin country more than it does her native Boston.
With drums straight out of Kate Bush circa The Dreaming, “Mary Come Alive” might be the album’s most aggressive track, though that’s like saying an Iron & Wine track is raucous. The track finds Nadler at her most commanding. From the imperative title to the wait she switches from a crisp voice in the verses to a coaxing one in the chorus, Nadler feels more like she’s engaging in a dialogue with the namesake character than she is telling a story, one of the few moments where she breaks the narrative barrier and becomes an active participant.
Little Hells isn’t background music and it’s not in your face, either. The closest contemporary Nadler has is My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, whose ambient brooding also takes time to embed itself in your mind until you’re humming some of the saddest melodies of the year. Give the album a listen, and if you’re not taken by it, give it a few more tries. Something in her songwriting takes a while to work its magic, but it will eventually soak into you.
“River of Dirt”