To listen to Marissa Nadler feels eternally like rediscovering an old friend. The Boston-based singer-songwriter has been a steady hand in indie folk for what feels like an eternity in the hyper-focused days of 2018; her debut album, Ballads of Living and Dying, came out back in 2004. While she seemingly missed the indie music bubble at the end of the last decade, each of her albums has earned critical praise and a strong, if not entirely sizable, following from those who appreciate the specific ways with which Nadler opens her heart up and then stitches it back together with guitar strings.
One of the benefits of longevity is that confidence can blossom at its own pace. And so, a magical thing has happened by virtue of Nadler perfecting her brand of dreamy, somber folk over the last 15 years: She’s become as confident of a voice as you can be in these turbulent times. With For My Crimes, her eighth full-length offering, Nadler harnesses that majestic voice, as well as her complete command of supporting instrumentation, to craft her most powerful LP to date. It’s a moody listen, 11 tracks of confessions and loss, but it never bogs itself down with the weight of its contents.
“Please don’t remember me for my crimes”: That’s the opening chorus on the record, as part of the title track, and it sets the stage for the travails of a woman trapped and reflective. As unknown assailants drag her, presumably to her execution, she pleads with a lover lost, not for forgiveness but for acceptance. In front of a single guitar, twirling into haze and fog, Nadler’s plea goes unanswered, and she seems to spend the following 10 tracks attempting to grapple with the consequences of lives full of the “terrible things, cold and careless lies” we all do to each other.
If you were to think of a contemporary to Nadler who treads on similar ground, you could do worse than choosing Sharon Van Etten. However, whereas the more physically wrought lyrics of Van Etten (“break my legs so I won’t walk to you”) evoke bodily horror, Nadler’s darkness resides in the mind. It’s the memories that haunt For My Crimes. “I remember the songs you sang to me, when it was you I was falling for,” she sings on “I Can’t Listen to Gene Clark Anymore,” whose chorus adds two simple words before the last part of the title: “I can’t listen to Gene Clark… without you, anymore.”
Similarly, on the delightfully named “Are You Really Gonna Move to the South?” Nadler contemplates on the scents and tastes of a lover who has abandoned her. The incredulity of the titular chorus lyric is as charming as it is heartbreaking, as is the descent into a nostalgic madness known mostly to those who have experienced romance only to have it ripped away. When she accepts that the partner is, in fact, moving to the south, there’s even bargaining: Nadler adds a pleading “...for a long time?” The door never closes on old love.
She’s not just a passive victim on the record, though. On “Blue Vapor,” she turns the lens at the second person, and the strength that she’s been accruing through the record crystallizes into a recovering acceptance. She tells her lover that you can’t go back, you can’t stop the inexorable march of time and life: “Doesn't matter what you say, I'm turning into blue vapor and bone.” The accompanying video finds fire and brimstone in loneliness, with Nadler’s face hyper-imposed into a burning home, a fitting image for a broken-down relationship.
Album closer “Said Goodbye to That Car” is a companion piece to “For My Crimes.” While the opening salvo plumbs the depths of repentance, the closing track goes for optimism in the wreckage. In front of a gentle guitar, the most placid on the record, Nadler says goodbye to a bullet-ridden vehicle as therapy. “It was the end of an era, I kicked off the rearview mirror,” she sings, with more force than you’d expect from leaving behind an important part of one’s journey. “119,657, and the engine blew. 119,657, and I thought of you,” she sings repeatedly, taking one last, longing look at the past and the odometer of love before the sky turns black and cleanses the imperfections of remembering.
It’s never too late to discover Marissa Nadler. In this era of endless streaming options, purposeful listening has never been more important. To live within Nadler’s worlds is to inhabit a once-formidable cabin in a dark and graying wood; you see the beauty, but only if you are able to attune your sensibilities to the colors and moods of the area. For My Crimes might not be the best offering from the now 37-year-old (that, for me, is still 2012’s self-titled masterpiece), but coming as deep into a career full of transfixing music as it does, it feels like the album Nadler has always been destined to make. It’s the purest distillation of her sound, and the deepest look into her heart.