Marissa Nadler follows her earlier Ballads of Living & Dying and The Saga of Mayflower May with this remarkable third album. Bird on the Water amplifies and extends Nadler’s emotional concerns while retaining every ounce of the haunted Gothic spirituality that was the defining characteristic of those albums. Its songs resonate with a deeply unsettling power and grace; supernaturally preoccupied with love, death and loneliness, they avoid morbidity and sentimentality by the richness and variety of their arrangements, by the rapturous imagery of Nadler’s texts and by the bewitching beauty of her voice.
The great Canadian songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen is a looming presence throughout the record. The formality of its title acknowledges the many Cohen album titles that contain the word ‘Songs’; the subtitle alludes to one of his most famous songs, “Bird on the Wire”; there’s a reverent cover of another Cohen classic, “Famous Blue Raincoat”; and Nadler’s acoustic guitar playing is glowingly reminiscent of Cohen’s own before he traded guitars for cheap synthesisers. And just as Cohen’s voice has weathered and deepened over the years, so Nadler’s vocals are richer and stranger than on previous outings. Angelically pure, double-tracked and reverb-heavy, the voice sounds as though it emanates from a centuries-old courtly love tradition, a 1960s acid-folk magic spell and a post-apocalyptic future, all at once.
The other thing that sets Bird on the Water apart from its predecessors is the fullness and variety of its instrumentation. Co-produced by Nadler and Greg Weeks of US psych-folk outfit Espers, the album features hard, unflinching electric guitar from Weeks himself as well as dark cello from his Espers colleague Helena Espvall. The confidence of the arrangements is nowhere more apparent than on the album’s extraordinary centrepiece “Bird on Your Grave,” which begins with spacey synthesised effects over plaintive strummed acoustic guitar, before opening out into a helter-skelter folk rock drama that recalls Fairport Convention at their most lysergic. The electric and percussive agitation subsides, but the landscape of the song has altered. Blasted where it once was delicate, Weeks continues his angsty riffing over Nadler’s pealing acoustic cycles; and the song ends with a further dose of electronic strangeness.
The next track, “Silvia,” adds Dylanesque organ to Nadler’s strong, resonant finger-picking style. The song’s gorgeous melody and lilting chorus hint at a pop sensibility that sits comfortably alongside the record’s more overtly folkish moments. These include the devastatingly sad “Mexican Summer,” on which Nadler’s plangent guitar resounds beautifully around her seductive voice; the blissful, sparkling arpeggios of “My Love and I”; and the delicate mandolin that courses playfully alongside the burrowing guitar patterns of “Diamond Heart”.
Lyrically, Bird on the Water is shot through with startlingly vivid imagery. Nadler has the gift of both familiarising the strange and making the strange familiar; in the world of her songs, the elements of earth, air, fire and water mingle with skin, bones, hair and colours. It’s also an intensely feminine world, in which “I thought of you each time I tore off my gown” (“Diamond Heart”), “I’m going to buy you a red dress and put feathers in your hair” (“Silvia”) and “she died all alone with her feathers and bows” (“Leather Made Shoes”). Stripping away the outward manifestations of modesty and decorum, Nadler’s texts conflate love, sex and death in a swooning current of feverish eroticism.
Nadler sings on “Rachel”: “Oh what a day to dance with you, oh what a day to die.” It’s a line that encapsulates the album’s unshakeable conviction that passion exists and is to be grasped through the infernal workings of tragedy. Songs III: Bird on the Water is a work of radical, deathly sensuality; to hear it is to be changed by it.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 15, 2007)