Marissa Nadler: Ballads of Living and Dying, The Saga of Mayflower May

With these two albums Marissa Nadler establishes herself as a gifted, utterly distinctive folk talent. Both records are full of beautifully wrought ballads, delivered in a sumptuous mezzo-soprano voice and accompanied by sparkling, fluent acoustic guitar.

On her 2004 debut, Ballads of Living and Dying, Nadler delivers on the stark promise of the album’s title. Playing guitar in the richly resonant picking style of Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy, she sings as if from a haunted netherworld. With eight of the ten tracks being self-penned, Nadler draws on seemingly limitless reserves of darkly potent imagery to create ballads of vast depth and eloquence. It’s a measure of her lyrical skill that the closing “Annabelle Lee,” a setting of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, seems entirely of a piece with her own texts. (“Hay Tantos Muertos,” a setting of a poem by Pablo Neruda, must remain a mystery to a non-Spanish speaker like myself.) Death, sex and lost or thwarted love are recurrent themes, from the tragic keening of “Box of Cedar” to the desolate eroticism of “Bird Song”:

You said my name so sweetly
That I took my clothes all off…
The birds are calling, and I do not believe for me
.

Throughout these ten short, passionate ballads, Nadler instinctively knows when to foreground her voice and when to let the guitar speak for her. Bathed in unearthly reverb, her ethereal voice frequently gives way to ominous finger picking. Currents of strangeness wander among the songs in the form of floating electric guitar and accordion. On “Days of Rum,” meanwhile, Nadler trades guitar for banjo, sounding for all the world like a time traveller from Harry Smith’s Anthology as she intones the spectral tale of a girl who “was young and yearned to die.” Even when the guitar shifts to more relaxed major-chord strumming on “Mayflower May” and “Virginia,” the lyrics remain defiantly sepulchral: “The waves rush against my face as I start to drown…”

Nadler’s 2005 follow-up, The Saga of Mayflower May, makes occasional glancing lyrical references to her first album, reinforcing the sense that the singer inhabits a hermetic, spiritually enclosed realm. Housed in a gorgeous miniature gatefold sleeve, the album extends and deepens its predecessor’s concerns in eleven further outpourings of intense, supernatural balladry. This time the Hammond organ lends its radiant timbre to three tracks, including the delightful “Yellow Lights,” whose softly strummed backing provides the setting for a mandala of colours – blue water, green grass, red rubies.

The album feels like a visitation from a parallel earth where the mythical has become the everyday, populated by damsels, gypsies and river children. If that sounds unbearably twee, then listen to the way Nadler’s filigree guitar, directly descended from Leonard Cohen’s classic 70s work, swoops and glides around lines like “Photographs of your face against the rain/I’m gonna burn them all and bury your name” (“Damsels In The Dark”).

These are the kinds of records you find yourself returning to again and again, drawn by the dark pastoralism of Nadler’s texts and the dangerous yet irresistible pull of her guitar and voice. Recommended without reservation.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 14, 2005)

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