THE PATH OF THE CLOUDS
29 October (all formats)
Marissa Nadler started out making a dark dream folk, her ghostly voice swathed in reverb against skeletal backings. Her ninth album fleshes out her sound on a set of murder ballads with a twist to create her crowning achievement.
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Some of us spent lockdown taking up new activities – knitting, drawing, baking, bingeing box sets. Perhaps you were more productive, starting that screenplay or novel that you’d been talking about for years. Marissa Nadler did a bit of both. She learned to play the piano and binged re-runs of the dark documentary series Unsolved Mysteries.
The result of her lockdown hobbies is what must surely the best album of her career.
As she sat at home watching stories of shocking murders, mysterious disappearances and paranormal encounters, the Boston-based musician and visual artist began to notice parallels between her own life and many of those she had been viewing on Netflix. Not that she had been out in the woods around nearby Salem hunting for the ghosts of witches; but that’s the beauty of being an artist and a songwriter – you can place yourself (and your listeners) in an imaginary world of your choosing.
Consequently, what started as a writing exercise became the bedrock of Nadler’s new songwriting process as she began to inhabit the narratives that had so fascinated her on screen, blurring the line between reality and fantasy, moving freely between past and present, fiction and truth. And, like all her previous work, from her earliest Americana-tinged dream-folk recordings with skeletal acoustic backings, to her last album For My Crimes, which put flesh on the bones of those songs, there is a dark undercurrent that contrasts with that light voice, a ghostly presence that imbues even the prettiest songs with an omimous sense of discomfort and danger
The Path Of The Clouds, self-produced and performed by Nadler with a collection of hand-picked musicians, is a set of deeply personal songs about love, metamorphosis, mysticism and murder. Her ninth solo album, it’s also her most melodically sophisticated and stylistically adventurous, expanding her once ethereally minimalist palette into a series of wintry widescreen soundscapes – a fitting setting for songs that search for solace, salvation and redemption even amid the depths of depravity.
Nadler’s songs always displayed that dark gothic undercurrent, even in her choice of collaborators (from death metal bands to friends like Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen) and covers, including a sparse interpretation of Black Sabbath’s Solitude and her work with bands like Xashur, Xiu Xiu, Ghost and Stephen Brodsky of Cave-In and Converge: their version of In The Air Tonight is essential listening; and last year’s spellbinding John Cale collab, Poison / If We Make It Through The Summer.
In that context, a new album by Marissa Nadler is never going to be packed with upbeat bangers. For My Crimes boasted a title song written and sung from the point of view of a prisoner on Death Row, begging for forgiveness and absoliution. Little surprise, then, to find that her latest opens with a gothic murder ballad, albeit one with a twist. Bessie, Did You Make It? inverts the oeuvre, crafting a compelling narrative of female empowerment and survival based on a true crime, as does the brooding Couldn’t Have Done The Killing: “Lay your weapons down, leave your weapons at the door / Cause you don’t need them, you don’t need them any more.”
The title track The Path Of The Clouds has its roots in another real-life crime, telling the story of infamous hijacker D.B. Cooper, who disappeared after parachuting from a passenger plane – the only unsolved act of air piracy in aviation history. But the song isn’t just about jumping out of a plane, faking your death and making a grand exit: it’s a meditation on perseverance and transformation, a salute to mastering one’s fate. It also rocks harder than anything Nadler has ever done before (which, admittedly, isn’t that hard).
Not that it’s all doom and gloom. Well, Sometimes You Just Can’t Stay introduces humour into the ingenious plans of the only escapees from Alcatraz never to be recaptured or found dead, and confronts the lingering enigma that surrounds their history. There’s a lyrical twist in the chorus that turns a tale about a prison break into a humorous, shoegazing country song. Meanwhile, a majestic grandeur sweeps through Elegy, shooting the listener into the stratosphere as synths swirl and entwine with Nadler’s voice, while the ghostly apparition of Black Mountain’s Amber Webber can be heard as a vocal foil in the distance.
While she’s always been a brilliant if understated guitarist, Nadler challenged herself to expand her palette here, experimenting with synthetic textures – and working with a wide range of collaborators – that make the music here feel untethered from time and space. In another change, she composed most of the new songs on the piano rather than her usual acoustic guitar, having taken piano lessons during lockdown from Jesse Chandler (a member of Midlake and Mercury Rev), who contributes plaintive piano and winding woodwinds on the album.
Nadler tracked the skeletons of the songs at home before sending them to her hand-picked coterie of collaborators, including Mary Lattimore, whose hallucinatory harp playing adds shimmering layers to If I Could Breathe Underwater, a cinematic flight of fancy with a pulsing rhythm and serpentine bass hooks. Others to contribute include Simon Raymonde, once bass guitarist in The Cocteau Twins and now her label boss at Bella Union, and multi-instrumentalist Milky Burgess, plus singer-songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle who contributes a slinky guitar solo on Turned Into Air.
The album was mixed in Rhode Island by Seth Manchester, known for his work with Lingua Ignota, Battles and Lightning Bolt, where another dimension was added to the songs’ atmospheric beauty with screeching feedback and distorted guitars, like the ones that add a chilling layer of discomfort to Couldn’t Have Done The Killing. Vocally, there is a new dimension too: stripped of the ethereal reverb that’s been a signature of her ghostly delivery, Nadler’s celestial mezzo-soprano exhibits a newfound immediacy and confidence.
Lyrically, her artist’s eye captures the detail in the stories she weaves in much the same way as she meticulously applies paint to a canvas. There are musicians for whom the term “artist” sounds trite – let’s face it, Westlife are not in the same game as Radiohead and Olly Murs is no Nick Cave – but for Marissa Nadler it’s exactly the right word. In fact it’s the only word. She’s an artist at the peak of her powers.