It must be difficult to be a significant other to Nina Nastasia, to know that your relationship will be the subject of the close scrutiny she displays on her fourth album, On Leaving. Not that it’d be so bad knowing that you were the inspiration for songs of such clear-eyed beauty; it’s more that these twelve stark acoustic gems — each about departure, escape, and the impulse to lose yourself in someone else — are the work of someone who has examined the contents of her heart on a far deeper level than you have.
But Nastasia is not just another singer-songwriter spilling out the contents of her diary. Her songs are observations, each one a dispassionate musing on a feeling that doesn’t exist outside of that particular song. And if that same sense of insularity and reserve — magnified by Nastasia’s pitch-perfect, inflectionless soprano — keeps On Leaving from connecting like it could have, the music draws you in, even at its slowest and starkest. In an uncharacteristic turn, engineer Steve Albini renders every quiver of a guitar string, every depression of a piano key, with glassy clarity. An unsettling viola haunts “Jim’s Room”; Dirty Three drummer Jim White’s brushes hit the snare like softly falling tears on “Settling Song.” Nastasia sings, “Running rooftops like the river boys do/ Kiss me once and you say I love you/ You make it cold in my heart/ But promise you will never leave me behind.” We know he will leave her behind. And somehow, we can tell that Nastasia has made her peace with that.