In a recent interview, Nadler said she doesn’t like people referring to her music as ‘ethereal’, an all too easy label to pin on her elegiac and remarkably distinctive soprano. As Nadler points out, words like “haunting” or “ethereal” can come off as weak; “You can be delicate and stuff without being a pussy”. Yet, when I first laid my ears on “Dead City Emily”, the first song of her sixth full-length July, the word “haunting” rarely felt more suitable. Not because of the meaning Nadler pinned on the word, but because it sounded blackened even by her standards. And more importantly because it lingered on long after I stopped listening. ‘Beautiful’ paints an even more appropriate picture, or as in the words of Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly, someone evidently more poetic than me; “On “Dead City Emily”, the light is more like the muted, overcast glow that comes with a first snowfall, a more cutting and realistic sense of dead leaves and ice”. Black metal producer Randall Dunn’s (Wolves In The Throne Room, Akron/Family, Boris, Lesbian, amongst others) audio engineering can largely be credited for the darker sound on July. The instrumentation, that stretches to include choirs, oriental strings and delicate layers of synth strains, is surrounded by spacious air, while Nadler’s vocals are waded in sensibly balanced reverb. But as Nadler herself pointed out; “my music always been a little dark and sad, but the sounds kind of match the words a little bit more now.”
On earlier albums, Nadler was content with expressing herself almost exclusively by the means of her voice and an acoustic guitar, and words like “spectral ambiance”, “haunting acoustics”, even “goth folk” were far too easy to glue on her outputs. In reality, she has gradually expanded her reach and moved well pasted any easy taxonomy. Just listen to the warm major chords on “The Sun Always Reminds Me Of You” from her seminal self-titled and self-released album from 2011, or the vulnerable “Baby I Will Leave You In The Morning” from the very same album, and compare them to the subtle beauty of “Dying Breed” or any other song from 2006’s Song 3: Bird On The Water, to see why such descriptions are hapless to the ever-changing Nadler. With July, she’s turning yet another page. While it initially might not come off as such, it’s the most ambitious work of Nadler’s career. You have to look harder, listen more carefully before July opens up, but when it does, it is all the more grander. Mood wise, the songs are unhurried and more akin to her pre-Box Of Cedar outputs, but when also considering the songwriting and production, it becomes clear how much she’s perfected and sharpened her talent.
Earlier, Nadler has pointed out that the characters on her songs are based on events she pulled from her surroundings. On here, for the first time, she moves into a first person narrative, expressing the shattering repercussions – a lost year from July to July – of a relationship gone horribly wrong. This little trick makes all the wounded, often violent, imagery all the more penetrating; “It’s true that I lost a year, Stumbling from room to room, Hoping I’d wake up, Somehow next to you”, she sings on centerpiece “Was It A Dream”. More so than at any time before, Nadler’s words feel all too real. Gone are the vague perspective and elusive metaphors. Now, it’s just her raw sentiments, expressed through her stunning, infinitely magnetic voice that, as always, serves as her greatest strength. And now with Dunn behind the wheels, it’s brought to life in ways I haven’t noticed before. Certain things are too exceptional and hypnotic to express in words, it’s perhaps why we tend to discourse these as “celestial”, “haunting” or even “evocative”. Undeniably, Nadler’s voice ranks amongst these; the impression it leaves is lingering and assured. It’s also the principal reason why I keep coming back to hear songs with increased regularity; re-experiencing them each time with invigorated admiration. I’m only a week into July, I have months, if not years, ahead of me before these songs culminate in meaning and affect. For that reason, it’s hard to put July in numbers and like most of Nadler’s work, it’s not easily weighed. It needs time to mature and fully form in the mind.
Admittedly, I was late on discovering Nadler; the first record I’ve heard was her self-titled 2011 album. Since then, I’ve slowly worked myself back into her extensive catalogue, treating each album with the same boyish enthusiasm. Marissa Nadler’s song seems to have an astonishing ability to draw the listener in, irrespectively of the instruments that trail along her vocals. Still, she remains fairly overlooked. She has a male counterpart in Bill Callahan, who similarly has released a long string of records with relatively moderate exposure. For Callahan, it all seems to have changed with last year’s Dream River, a record that saw Callahan putting all the pieces of his art together into his most consistent set of songs. This year, hopefully the same will apply to Marissa Nadler. July is Nadler’s first record for Sacred Bones (home of Zola Jesus, David Lynch, The Men), arguably the biggest label she’s released through, which accordingly means her biggest chance so far of getting the exposure she deserves. When all things considered, July ranks up there amongst her most complex and focused work. Now with the right tools at her proposal, this could, and by all means should be the year for Nadler.