Unless your skills with an instrument - a singular instrument if limitations such as this are both a desire and necessity - are of tip-top shape and crown-wearing reign in a particular field of music, more than likely you'll be left with an uphill task of keeping your audience both entertained but also interested in digging deeper into your ideas - beyond any superficial exposition and perhaps to something far more emotive or evocative hiding sneakily behind those solo piano bars or humble guitar strums. Marissa Nadler treats guitars almost like a lost child treats a teddy bear - unable, unwilling to let go no matter the situation or indeed perhaps the resulting consequence of locking one's self into such a state. The advantage for Nadler though, much unlike a child, is her possessiveness with such instruments - albeit loosened a little with processing - is more than made up for in the Boston-based songwriter's catalog of dreamy folk and acoustic pop over the course of her already-decade-spanning career. The formula may not be that different coming to Nadler's sixth full length, July - now flying the flag for one of the past few years' most rewarding labels currently in Sacred Bones - but with the Washington-born singer expanding from the comfort of enclosed rooms to the still air of chamber-wide interiors, there's no denying the ambition and stride is any lesser.
The ambition then for Nadler on this album is, like its cover, to bridge the gap between the interior and exterior; between the loosening brightness emanating from outside and the enveloping dark that Nadler herself technically stands within; somewhat in a grey field that takes from both plains but isn’t exactly embedded its feet within. It’s this ambiguity and balance of which she presents on a record fuelled by its greyscale melancholy; melancholy that isn’t as strung out or as striking, but still yearns for the same level of ethereal, wintered exposition. And here, the output gives that particular draw an entirely new lease of life. Drawn (Fade Into) opens the album showcasing Nadler’s dual proficiency in instrumentation and vocals alike; curling acoustic strings and ethereal harmonies surrounding Nadler’s own breathy voice in a track lyrically teetering between fond memories yet still basking in a kind of unremitting half-light that reveals itself fully in the latter inclusion of electric guitars that stretch the visage of the music even further into the distance. But what’s more profound is (as we discover in later tracks) is how unafraid the record is to admit its simplicity, but succeeding as a result in not trying to dress itself up as anything else. True, like in following track 1923, there are some accompanying string layers that hold this ray-of-light glaze aloft - along with some gentle sway of percussion that brings the song’s rhythm into focus - but the fact that I’m still locked onto Nadler’s own multi-layer use of vocals, despite all this, proves the song-writer can still draw out from all this processed light/darkness play without overly dominating or coming off as cliched.
In retrospect, this is almost the same kind of ethereal balance we’ve come to expect from the likes of Portishead; admittedly, the electronics aren’t present, but the withdrawn, other-Worldly physicality to Nadler’s voice aside such simple-led, simple-structured guitar pieces, is a just comparison. Firecrackers does not in the slightest come off (masqueraded or not) as a complexly-arranged piece; a series of gently-strummed chords are all that accompany Nadler’s multi-tracked vocals, yet it’s all that’s required to boost her from out the plain backdrop of singer-songwriter, and into this swelling landscape where (as mentioned) light and dark appear to gel and combine with none of the supposed volatile clashing. Perhaps it’s Nadler’s particular distancing when she confesses about more personal (and thus, affecting) subject matter about someone else - ‘I saw your face everywhere I looked, she sat across from me/Baby I’m a ghost when you’re away’ - and the way her melancholic tone plays into this selectively gentle way of delivery. As a result, Nadler’s dispelling of her missing this particular person isn’t ruined by any awkward showering of emotion on the listener; instead what we get merely feels like a mist; a fog looming from out the music’s equally night-time, low-key dispersion of mood. Perhaps the only real moments where the listener is distracted or deterred from Nadler’s words are on moments such as We Are Coming Back where the guitar and vocal layers are unfortunately expressed a little too high on the mix. It’s a shame because the coherence in clarity in her words offer us Nadler’s most distinctive use of mood and emotive clarity to give the music that grey-area it's sought so well up to this point.
Another slight criticism that can't be ignored is the time it takes for us to get to a point on the album wherein Nadler expands her brooding, glacial interior of sound towards other conventions of instrumentation and sound, rather than that of acoustic strings. Not that this is an overwhelmingly deflating negative, but given how well she incorporates strings and vocals in such a simplistic and effective manner, the obvious notion of which to advance this would be to move towards other instruments so as to allow the songwriter's palette to equal her already high-running success with the guitar. Fortunately the variance does come; roughly half way through the record, Was It A Dream finds Nadler focus her efforts more on incorporating electric guitar to emphasize the slightly darker and post-scenario narrative of which Nadler's lyrics continue to slot into both with ease, and a surprising level of effectiveness thanks to her use of multilayer vocals to add more ferocity to the track's intent. So too the guitar riffs and eventual strain of violins add a sleeker but darker edge to the narration, and it's here where the album's co-existent balance, comes into full view. I've Got Your Name leads with a swift gesture of piano chords that provide enough of a withdrawn sensation without leading the listener away from Nadler's vocals which are at their most contrasting tonally. What's more - going back to the concept of light-and-dark meshing - the glimmer of subtle synthesizers and bass that balance out on either side offer even more of a disorientating colour to a track while second-shortest in length, is without question one of the most visceral and textural.
Likewise, the tiny murmurs and offerings of strings and synthetics on the track Desire help lift, or rather pull, Nadler's guitar playing and vocal offerings into much more of that same-vain visage of being torn between light and dark - the song's chamber-sized hollowness creating a much greater effect sonically for the listener as well as giving the acoustic strings a more identifiable contrast when put against what is this murky shroud generating from off the track's brooding, ambient backdrop. And this is where Nadler perfects the art of cunningly introducing new sounds. For the way Anyone Else takes this sound and pushes the record's underpinning menace of dark, enveloping, apprehension and focuses it on the main instrumentation, creates a greater presence not just in front of the listener, but all around them, given how much the track expands from its arpeggios of guitar strings - adding a somewhat apprehensive swatch of bass and wide-angle synths to, if not direct the nature of the piece, at the very least underpin some more menacingly darker and disorientating vibes about Nadler's seemingly innocent and modest delivery. And even if the album ends with a two-minute send-off in Nothing In My Heart, the continuing presence of Nadler's somber-if-considered approach to harmonics and multi-layering gives her lonely exposition the space it deserves to breathe and lead the record off on the very-same quaint measure of melancholic focus minus all the unnecessary emotive filler that could as likely put people off as much it may attempt to pull its listener deeper in.
Truthfully, it doesn't require anymore depth or means of exaggerating her case, for in all its simplicity of structure and stability with guitars and intoxicating vocals alike, July sees Marissa Nadler comfortable with making the absolute most of what it has - shining much-needed light in the most cavernous and compressed of sonic interiors. But it's the fine-line she draws between the pristine strings and emotive depth that gives Nadler's sound purpose and a desire to feel compelled by what is being portrayed. Had this been simply catering to the atypical venue halls, laden with accoustic compositions in repetitive patterns of chords and vocal passages, the effect would have been a lot lesser, if not non-existent. Yet Nadler's approach - her treating sound to the much grander, vaster, and intimidating hollows of the dark - makes this an album that can be seen as much for its sonic integrity as in its melodic and harmonic equivalents. Looking past the guitars, you will find Nadler's expressions more than shine through the fog that lays densely throughout. But even further than that, the very selective choice of atmosphere and tension she incorporates gives this record the push to which her instruments play into with compelling effect. It's one thing to sing about being alone/apart. It's another case altogether wherein the listener feels as torn away as the album so carefully details. And amidst all those singular isolations - between light and dark - Marissa Nadler remains, established, like she's never been away.