It would be fair to say that Marissa Nadler has something of a reputation to uphold. After releasing six widely acclaimed studio albums, and transitioning from light, airy folk to deep, dark dream pop in the process, Nadler is one of the few artists who doesn’t seem to have fallen at the hurdles yet. To say she’s never released a bad album would be an understatement – Nadler may be one of her generation’s finest songwriters, seemingly able to appease critics and fans alike, whilst never compromising on the unique mysticism at the centre of her sound. Reviews must always be written with an open mind, but it would be a real shame if Strangers didn’t at least live up to its predecessors.
Reassuringly, opening track Divers Of The Dust is a very strong start. The song utilises the Dadaist cut-up method popularised by the likes of William S. Burroughs, allowing Nadler to burrow down the rabbit hole of surreal imagery. It doesn’t quite achieve the levels of unrelenting semantic destruction exhibited by a work like Naked Lunch, but makes for a bizarre and intriguing listen nonetheless. The to-ing and fro-ing of the piano coupled with the distinctive rise and fall of Nadler’s voice gives the song a totally unpredictable feel, which adds to the quasi-nonsensical visions of the lyrics. For a song that’s been written in such a bizarre fashion, Divers Of The Dust flows wonderfully. The lyrical scope encompassing the record is perhaps best exemplified by the contrast between Divers Of The Dust and Janie In Love, the latter being what you might have come to expect from one of Nadler’s love songs. “You’re a natural disaster / And I’m watching you blow up everything” she sings, with a sense of unbridled adoration in her voice, as well as an alarming lack of perceived irony. Nadler’s fluid alternation between hypnagogic musings and earthly storytelling gives Strangers some of its most compelling moments. It usually takes a lot for an artist’s lyrics to really draw me in, but Strangers ticks all the boxes.
Not to detract from the music, which is also excellent. All The Colours Of The Dark is as gothic and distanced as it is beautiful, complete with poignant string arrangements, which are never nearly as cloying as they tend to be during typical singer-songwriter excursions. Then again, Nadler isn’t your typical singer-songwriter. The arrangements are tastefully restrained and generally well done throughout the album. The title track’s gentle acoustic strumming and evocative electric guitar lines are reminiscent of the music of Steve Gunn, possessing the same meditative qualities, before distorted patches of noise swerve the melody off-road for a moment, adding to the essential strangeness which haunts Nadler’s songs. Katie I Know is another stand-out moment, the subtle mellotron groove and graceful vocal lilt reinforcing its ethereal nature. Likewise, Dissolve is a wonderful end to the album, allowing the listener to witness Nadler’s return to her folk origins. Having said that, this isn’t the hackneyed stylistic cliché of an artist ‘going back to their roots’ – this is every bit as genuinely serene as her earlier works. Clearly her forays into wider sonic spaces haven’t hindered the quiet, beautiful folk sensibilities she has displayed for so long.
Strangers has permitted Marissa Nadler to open up her sound even more. This is the LP’s greatest triumph, allowing the music to conjure a grandness which is fully realised throughout. The fact that an album which incorporates dark folk, ethereal wave and alternative rock could retain such sheer congruity and a prominent sense of intelligent restraint is truly impressive. Strangers sounds more like a carefully constructed soundtrack than an album at some points, but at the heart of it all, it’s just a collection of great songs, sung by someone who seems to have no intention of slowing down.