What a pleasant surprise the new Marissa Nadler CD was when it arrived in my mailbox. She is a relatively new artist from rural Massachusetts whom I knew nothing about. Songs III: Bird on the Water is her third record, and it is her first that was professionally recorded. It is a folk album in the true sense of the word and it is great. There are no traces of what most would refer to as alt-country. Refreshingly, there is hardly one shred of country at all in this sophisticated collection of folk songs. The songs themselves are quite bare, with minimal ethereal accompaniment and contain a moderate amount of shimmer and echo. The songs are somber and haunting, and if I were to come up with a quick comparison, I would say that she sounds something like a modern day female Leonard Cohen, but she also grasps her own autonomous voice.
Most of the lyrical themes on Bird on the Water deal with sorrow, death and other kinds of loss. “Diamond Heart” is written like a letter to an ex-lover where the narrator tells of how she has subsequently become a dancer and has men in almost every town that she visits. The acoustic guitar and mandolin come across like something straight out of the first Leonard Cohen album. Despite her lifestyle, the subject sings gorgeously “But oh my lonely diamond heart, it misses you so well.” “Bird on your Grave” is, simply put, a beautiful song. A strummed acoustic guitar plays sadly as Nadler’s ghostly voice sings about someone who died a few months back and is sorely missed. This song also features drums and a 1970s Brian Enoesque electric guitar solo. The reflective lyrical passage ends, “Tomorrow I’m gonna leave a bird on your grave/With a note and I’m hoping it will last for days/Faded from flesh they put flowers on your grave/With a great box of cedar where they buried you.” “Thinking of You” is another lovely song, which has agile finger picked acoustic guitar that is augmented by some dissonant harmonica playing. The lyrics start off a little bit more commonplace with the lines “Thinking of you all through the morning/I’m thinking of you all through the evening,” before the song takes a darker turn with lines such as “I met a girl under the water/It made me recall how I wanted a daughter/But you never gave me nothing that I could hold onto.” Song after song, the record unravels into an album that flows without glitches or boring moments.
Songs III: Bird on the Water is a wonderful folk record that exists in an era where there are so few of those around. The music is stark and honest, free of any pretense whatsoever and the album shines without flaw. It is at times brimming with sorrow, but also exudes a certain amount of light that almost makes the songs somewhat uplifting. Marisaa Nadler has a talent in making beautiful, unadulterated music that is light years ahead of anything that is dumped into the freak folk category, which she is certainly not a part of in attitude or sound. This is not neo-hippie acoustic based music, rather these are pure and timeless autumnal songs in both form and convention.