Hitherto, Marissa Nadler had pretty firmly established herself as a gothic, nocturne-slangin’, waifish siren whose music’s dark allure was owed entirely to her own minimal sensibility. Utilizing nothing but a guitar, her voice, and a deluge of reverb most of the time, Nadler managed to make fans absolutely keen to one day be driving along a dark country road, suddenly become aware of some gorgeously spare singing, and happen upon Marissa Nadler sitting beneath a tree next to a fresh corpse. Having the power to make your listeners wish they were in the setup for a horror movie is clearly the evidence of a considerable gift, so Nadler should’ve been happy right? If it ain’t broke and all that jazz?
Instead of the tried and true, with Little Hells, Nadler has opted for a much more sonically expansive approach to her craft. Of course, this isn’t the first time that Nadler’s gone out on a track with more than just her voice and guitar happening, but it certainly sounds as if she’s allowed elements like percussion and electronics more prominence on Little Hells, even if her voice is still the axis of her work. Largely, the songs on Little Hells sound fuller and cleaner than Nadler’s previous work.
But is clean how we really want Nadler to sound? One of my favorite Marissa Nadler tracks recently has been the unreleased "All Love Must Die," which the singer put up on her blog, and from the "School project for project" album title, appears to be a track she did during her stint at RISD. As you would expect, the song is the usual voice, guitar, and reverb combo, and it is murder. Ask any scholar of 18th century romanticism: It is easier to get lost in the subterranean beauty of the spare and obscure than it is the busy and clear.
Of course, that does not tell you anything. One of the best, most beautiful songs on Little Hells is "River of Dirt," which is also one of the most clean. sonically diverse tracks on Little Hells. If you didn’t know any better, upon hearing it you would say it is almost "poppy," but this is Marissa Nadler we’re talking about here.
Speaking of aesthetic confusion, on two of Hells’ tracks, "Mistress" and "Rosary," Nadler seems to trade her folk leanings for just a little bit of country, which might be sound like a nit-picky distinction to make, but it’s not. Also, some very jarring, electronic drums open album cut "Mary Come Alive." A few seconds in, these drums make perfect sense, but for those few seconds you check to make sure that you are still listening to Marissa Nadler.
So what is going on here? Little Hells feels like something of a process record for Nadler, one where she works out the discrepancies between the places she wants to go with her music, and the modes of expression available to her. Little Hells still works from start to finish, but if that’s the case, then it’s pretty good for process output. To give you a picture, the other way out of the process tunnel is M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady In The Water. Nadler’s success is probably due to the fact that she really doesn’t tinker with the formula too much; even in her most un-Nadler moments we’re still following her sirensong through an old, drafty mansion; and whether Nadler’s music is lovely enough to get you to fight against the best instincts of your horror-film watching past, that’s the real test, isn’t it?