Review Summary: The coldest July on record makes for a stunning achievement.
"July 4th, of last year, we spilled all the blood. How'd you spend your summer days?"
This line, from the song "Firecrackers," proves why July
is the perfect title for Marissa Nadler's new record. It is a time of year that is, at least here in the Northeast (Nadler hails from Massachusetts), usually balmy and humid and hot. Lots of sweaty, self-fanning days. Blasting air conditioners that cool the house to a temperature that would be way too cold in any other season. It's the first full month of summer, and it feels like it. But for Nadler, this heat is not the problem. This album details, in a sort of chronological fashion, the utter decay of a relationship, from the beginning of the fall (July) to the end. It feels as though it takes about a year's worth of stories of troubles and tribulations and boils them down to the essentials across 11 songs. Nadler's July is a cold, embittered month, and the feelings persist throughout the whole season.
This may all sound grim and devastating to the point of being off-putting, but it is anything but. This is a record of serious, intelligent examinations of our saddest emotions, of moments when our psyches are dampened - nay, flooded by the deluge of hurt that can come with a massive breakup. It is well-worn territory, I'll concede that, and Nadler has treaded similar terrain before, usually very successfully. But never has she been as on-point, honest, upfront, and piercing as she is on these gorgeous 47 minutes. Where before Nadler would employ intricate metaphors and stories and allegories, here she seems to be putting herself on full display. From the opening strains of the gorgeously sad road song "Drive" (which begins with a painful image of a singer struggling to "make it") to the honeyed deflation of the piano-led closer "Nothing in My Heart," Nadler delivers these tales of personal let down and confusion with enough gravity and pathos to strike a listener over the head.
A lot of what makes this possibly Nadler's finest record to date is the additional members present for this recording. Producer Randal Dunn, known for extremely heavy acts like Earth and Sunn, gives Nadler and her comrades ample room to play in, and he knows how to let them fill a space. Nadler's voice, swathed in its expected reverb, radiates and swims through the ears like never before, always able to take on the necessary quiver or vibrato or crestfallen yearning that any given moment requires. Furthermore, her ghostly backing vocals (which are lathered everywhere) sound more intense, more important than ever. Her guitar playing has been consistently improving for the past few years, and her strong abilities sound fantastic here, whether it's the seething, voluminous plucking (seriously - it kind of roars) on "Anyone Else", or the dextrous and deceptively simple progression of the absolutely crushing "Holiday in". The strings of Eyvind Kang raise "1923" to some otherworldly ether, and the electric guitar on "Was It a Dream" reminds us of how brilliantly Nadler's songs can sometimes use an electric friend (just check Songs III
's "Bird on Your Grave"). The gentle synths on "Desire" are a nice touch, as are the steel drums on "Dead City Emily". Even the two piano songs produce shivers with their keys assuming a lush, deep weight.
The real star, though, has got to be Nadler's songwriting, plain and simple. This is truly some of her best to date. "You had it all wrong, I was about to believe / That you had desire for me" she sings on the moving "Desire". On "Holiday in", notably the only song with no additional instrumentation or backing vocals, just Nadler and her guitar, has the devastating line "We said hello but knew / It was finally goodbye", along with the chorus: "You've got a girl in every state / And I know I'm in the way / My fantasy's gone forever / And now I've got nothing left to say". There is such a sadness in the way she refrains, "Take the blame and I promise to put honey in your jar / Maybe it's the weather, but I got nothing in my heart" at the close of the LP. "It's true that I lost a year / Stumbling from room to room / Hoping I'd wake up / Somehow next to you" she sings on "Was It a Dream". And the simple recollection of moments on the road ("Change in a rest stop / Into my dress / Be sure not to touch the floor") sound riveting coming from her pen. As said, these aren't terribly new themes, but the way Nadler is writing about them - so bold, blunt - makes them particularly penetrating, so involving, in a way I don't think she has ever really done. Virtually every song has at least one line or verse that could be the best one on the record.
The gothic influences of her older work can still be sussed out, especially the 6-minute "Dead City Emily" or just the general energy of "Anyone Else", but it never remotely takes anything away. This is a record of such deep, sad memories and empathy and hurt, that I suppose I can actually understand why someone might be afraid of it. But those people should give this a chance. July
may not be as warm and fun as its titular month, but so what? It's exceptionally crafted and dreamy but tethered firmly to an emotional ground most of us can identify with, or at least understand. It also happens to be Marissa Nadler's most gleaming achievement yet.
Final Score: 9.2/10
Key Tracks: Drive, Was It a Dream, Desire, Holiday in