Review Summary: Nina Nastasia's songs may originate from her bathroom, but with On Leaving the end product is something rather different, and nothing short of majestic.1 of 1 thought this review was well written
Legendary producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies) once described Nina Nastasia’s debut album ‘Dogs’ to be ‘a record so simultaneously unassuming and grandiose that I can't really describe it, except in terms that would make it (and me) sound silly’. That’s not a bad compliment to someone who writes her songs in the confines of her bathroom. No – that’s not a joke, she really does. The above would suggest any overall description of Nastasia’s music to be a difficult task. For the benefit of the uninitiated, I can only offer ‘minimalist gothic folkie with orchestral sensibilities’ to describe her work to date. That said, On Leaving offers something different altogether.
So first, lets take the unassuming. On Leaving clocks in at just under 34 minutes with 12 songs. Unlike her previous efforts, the instrumentation stripped bare to just acoustic guitars, drums, viola and piano. Albini’s sparse production gambles much on Nastasia’s (untrained) voice to carry the album. Be that as it may, to say that the gamble has paid off would be some understatement. In this more simplified setting, Nastasia’s pitch-perfect tender voice has never sounded more assured, nor her melodies more compelling. It’s almost unbearably fragile in ‘Counting up Your Bones’ as it is nostalgic and distant in ‘Settling Song’. The presence of the piano – evident on every track – hovers above finger-picked guitar renders reminiscent of say Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’. Like that song, there are many beautiful moments in On Leaving where the instrumentation is so perfectly balanced, yet slight piano lifts the melodies from being merely engaging to something approaching the majestic.
Lyrically, each of the twelve tracks here explore into situations where the characters are contemplating leaving someone, something or some place. On ‘Our Day Trip’ she suggests her lover to call in sick, leave the city and enjoy a picnic on a boat – a simple romantic ideal crushed as her lover leaves for work having ‘so much more ambition’. ‘Why don’t you stay home’ marks he album’s highlight, as she implores with lover to come home: I know you can’t stay very long/ But why do you run, and run / The children you won’t recognise /They are growing so fast/ I can’t keep up, keep up. And on it goes. The tempo changes pace on ‘Brad Haunts Party’ and ‘One Old Woman’ magnificently guided by Jim White’s drumming. Elsewhere, she sings to a departing bird on ‘Bird of Cuzco’ before closing with hopeful refrains in ‘If We Go to the West’.
With repeated listens one begins to understand that Albini’s statement is both a perfect summation of this record, and of her unique oeuvre as a singer-songwriter. On Leaving is grandiose as much for what the record does say about the topic as what remains unsaid. For the listener, you may well draw your own conclusions from the ambiguity in the lyrics, whatever those may be, the emotions invoked are of that autumnal or late summer sunset feel that will invariably induce tears. But as noted, it is the simplified beauty and poetic elegance that makes this album as essential as it is - a minor masterpiece.