Marissa Nadler’s Little Hells is nothing less than aptly named. It’s a slice of intricately stringed American Gothic that, if at times a little unrelenting, creates a distinctive fictional universe of which most seasoned authors would be justly proud…only Nadler has pointed out that many of the characters are based on real-life friends and acquaintances. So, for the record, we have in Nadler a twenty-seven year old, self-taught guitarist and singer, on her fourth critically acclaimed album, who has friends that could keep HBO in dramatic television series for years to come.
No need to be jealous, though. Nadler isn’t the kind to strut. Even though relatively young, she opens Little Hells with the quiet, measured confidence of a seasoned pro. Opener ‘Heart Paper Lover’ reinforces her reputation at once. It is spooky and beautiful, Nadler’s voice as atmospheric as ever. She has the market cornered when it comes to being both simultaneously icily detached from and heartbreakingly involved in her material. It’s a quality that makes her absolutely unique in the vocal stakes, perhaps even incomparable.
‘Rosary’ follows, and warms through the icy chill left by its predecessor. Here, Nadler’s ability to sketch out characters with scant room for detail comes to the fore. It is, at times, a little like slipping into a paragraph from Woolf’s The Waves, offering up a stream of consciousness that traverses both the mundane and the divine. Next up is ‘Mary Come Alive’ which, in many respects, is the most exciting track on the album, kicking off as it does with an ’80s drumbeat before using similarly spiky keyboards as those which adorned Bat For Lashes’s ‘What’s A Girl To Do’. It’s a step away from the atmospheric, folky territory that Nadler inhabits, and the risk pays off in bucketloads.
It’s a sound that she revisits again in ‘The Whole Is Wide’, which consists solely of Nadler’s voice ‘reverbed’, the piano in Cat Power mode, and a clever, beautiful touch in which the male backing vocal falls away when she launches into the lyrics, “Oh, what am I to do / without a man to see me through?” Often the more experimental tracks are swiftly followed up by retreats into more traditional territory (the title track, for instance, comes after ‘Mary Come Alive’ and is a sweet, sorrowful country ditty with strummed guitar), but this shouldn’t matter too much: Nadler does what she does so very well. Even on familiar territory, like the dreamy, shoegazey closer ‘Mistress’, she’s in sublime, beautiful form.
‘Mary Come Alive’, though, really gives you a glance into an album that Nadler could and most definitely should make in the future, where she gives into her more experimental side and recycles some truly artificial sounds into a twisted masterpiece. With Little Hells being her fourth album in just about as many years, Nadler is prolific enough to ensure that there’s a good chance that this album could come soon.
[Kemado; March 2, 2009]