Stark, bleak, and haunting yet stunning and mesmerizing, Marissa Nadler delivers her most dynamic and beautifully striking album with ‘The Path of the Clouds’.

Since the release of her eponymous debut album in 2011, Marissa Nadler‘s music consistently has been beautifully haunting. It has also been full of contrasts, such as the cold chill that emanated from the restrained July or the stark melancholy of Strangers. Creating art that can elicit such conflicting emotions is a talent that few artists can match, which speaks to the meticulous nature of how Nadler tackles her craft. Her compositions are complex, the stories she tells are striking, and her voice is wonderfully ghostly. After eight spine-tingling albums, a question remained – could Nadler once again replicate the magic while finding new ways to stun?

Although many struggled living through multiple lockdowns as a result of a global pandemic, the isolation provided the motivation for Nadler to work on her ninth album, The Path of the Clouds. Her inspiration, however, did not come for her own experiences and anxieties, as has been the case for most songs and albums emerging over the past 22 months. Instead, the LP’s stories are drawn from Nadler binge-watching reruns of Unsolved Mysteries. With each episode, she realized how closely her life mirrored those of told on the popular series. And quickly, a record was born. Nadler, however, was not only inspired to write new songs, but she also has reinvented herself. The bleakness remains, but it is expressed in a much more widescreen fashion. It is expressed through the prism of vintage cinema as opposed to secretive nightclubs, leading to Nadler’s most dynamic album to date.

Nadler wastes little time to introduce her chilling cinematic sound. Opener “Bessie Did You Make It” is a gripping and dazzling drama. Pristine guitars, a humming synth, and light rhythms float effortlessly in the air with Nadler’s ethereal voice gliding next to the arrangement. Like the late Robert Stack, she narrates the events of a crime. But this murder ballad has an unexpected ending as the protagonist is not the victim. She instead is the hero who lives to tell her tale of empowerment and survival many decades later.

“Fifty years later the tale turned to legend
A woman claimed to be Bess for a second
By the fire, she said without smiling
‘I’m Bessie, I killed him, I was simply surviving’
‘I’m Bessie, I killed him, I was simply surviving'”

The tone for the rest of the LP is set, but Nadler uses different devices to recreate the arresting effect of the opener. On the title track, a delicate, tranquil melody eventually gives way to a trembling climax. But throughout the song, a suspense lingers, as Nadler narrates a kidnapping and the decision of whether to pay the ransom or not. Conversely, “Couldn’t Have Done The Killing” pulses with a brooding edge, as distorted guitar cuts through haunting harmonies. The percussion builds, adding tension as the song continues. The closing moments rise to near Gothic-psychedelic territory while Nadler’s lyrics evoke another late-night mystery.

“Premeditated, still on the loose
imply walked away,
Nothing really left to lose
I was your accomplice, your second sight
I didn’t want this, hard to tell the wrong from right”

The album does have moments of calm illumination. “Elegy” is hymnal in quality with Nadler’s vocal the centerpiece. Her tale is less about a crime but more about the pending doom two people are about to face. “It’s almost midnight”, Nadler calmly states, using the hour to represent the inevitable. The stripped-back yet breathtaking “From Vapor to Stardust” evokes Mazzy Star. But as opposed to singing about lost love, Nadler focuses on the skeletons that exist in every closet. Similarly, the Gothic-folk tune “Turned Into Air” and the sensual dream-folk of “Lemon Queen” stir emotions, from the melodies’ enrapturing intimacy to the desire to forget about the coldness of the past.

Nadler enters the realm of stark yet dreamy shoegaze on “Well Sometimes You Just Can’t Stay”. What arguably is Nadler’s most stunning single is also one of her most startling, as she recounts the final moments of a person before they are about to take their own life. They do so, however, to flee an abusive situation. “Did you drown in the ocean and make your great escape?”, Nadler lushly sings.

This aquatic theme is repeated on “If I Could Breathe Underwater”. Lush harmonies and a perfectly haunting guitar line create an ethereal feeling. An underlying layer of harp from Mary Lattimore adds to the surreal and dreamlike feeling, akin to what is seen and experienced on the Academy Award-winning film, Shape of Water. Like Elisa Esposito, Nadler’s protagonist wishes she could breathe under water to live another day. But unlike Esposito, the person who has her is not her savior. He is her terror. 

Like all great stories, the album must come to an end. While not the album’s ultimate nor penultimate track, “Storm” is the funeral procession. A somber yet eye-opening morbid tone, led by a great flute and organ arrangement, rises. As the song slowly reaches its apex, Nadler’s words linger. 

“I thought I would disappear
Go anywhere but here
Wished that I knew
That shadow and gloom was everywhere”

But in Nadler’s world, there is also tremendous beauty. It at times may be stark, bleak, and haunting, but it always is striking and mesmerizing. And even more so this time around.

The Path of the Clouds is out now via Bella Union and Sacred Bones Records. Streaming and purchasing links are available here or get it directly on Bandcamp.

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