Boston’s Marissa Nadler has spent the past 18 years developing her unique blend of dream-folk and Southern gothic. With the “slow music” niche she carves with her expressive voice and guitar, the songwriter’s eighth album plunges into unprecedented emotional depths. From the nebulous oil-painted album art to her chilling sonics, For My Crimes takes an unflinching look into Nadler’s fear, failure and redemption.
The opening title track sets a heavy mood of regret, with fingerpicked guitar supporting rapturous harmonies by Angel Olsen. Janel Leppin’s strings take off like carrion birds as Marissa Nadler narrates the perspective of a death row criminal: “I’ve done terrible things/ Bold and callous lies… Please don’t remember me/ For my crimes.” Recorded with minimal reverb, Nadler’s voice effortlessly leaps out of the cinematic aura.
Nadler turns inward on subsequent cuts. Most music lovers can relate to her ode to ruined music, “I Can’t Listen to Gene Clark Anymore.” Pristine organ drones and dreary strumming complement the album’s ongoing theme of strained long-distance relationships. “’Cause I remember/ The songs you sang/ To me when it was you/ I was falling for,” she sings, lamenting the one the got away with her favorite country albums.
The despondent narratives of “Lover Release Me” and “Are You Really Going to Move to the South?” elaborate on hopeless romanticism. The former’s warm cello and quivering flute accompany Nadler’s plea for liberation from a doomed relationship, while the latter embraces a gothic take on Closing Time-era Tom Waits. “In my car/ I look to the right/ Where you’d sit is just a beam of light,” she sings of a her lost lover in the spaces they used to share.
None of the ornamental instruments distract from Nadler’s songwriting chops. The distant strings and brawny synth of “Interlocking” actually support the guitars’ melodic structure, while “Blue Vapor” embraces Chelsea Wolfe-esque doom folk. The second cut’s propelling strums allow Patty Schemel of Hole to provide the only percussion on the album with her noisy beat. While its atmosphere is potent and its instrumentation is powerful, For My Crimes always circles back around to Nadler and her guitar.
Nadler’s intimate singing comes alongside listeners to guide them through her treacherous inner life. Both the nimble noodling of “You’re Only Harmless When You Sleep” and the foreboding acoustics of “All Out of Catastrophes” bluntly examine toxic romance.
Whether Marissa Nadler details a futile attempt to cohabitate or a conflict building to the breaking point, her words and melodies drip with self-aware despondence. Her enchanting harmonies balance her raw vulnerability, an approach made possible by the powerful women and allies with whom she recorded. Within this safe haven, she weaves her deepest pains and uncertainties into memorable stories.
Even the most sparse arrangements maintain a sense of size, thanks to Nadler’s harmonic intuition, nuanced timbre changes and choral voice layerings. This allows “Dream Dream Big in the Sky” to stargaze like the song’s protagonist as spectral vocalizations disperse throughout its simple guitar strumming.
Similarly, “Flamethrower” more than makes up for its skeletal instrumentation with Nadler’s resonant voice. This track also introduces the possibility of rebirth by burning the past down and walking away, though maybe not by literally combusting one’s hometown.
Nadler bids farewell to an era in the tellingly titled “Said Goodbye to That Car.” “One-one-nine-six-five-seven and the engine blew; One-one-nine-six-five-seven and I thought of you.”
The album’s final moments find a bit of outlaw country bounce, with more emphasis on staccato cello lines and plucky guitar. By conflating the car’s gradual decay with a transient love, she observes her idealistic life slip away and takes a definitive step toward moving on.
For My Crimes is a pessimistic and gloomy affair, but the sadness is not without purpose. Nadler courageously examines the ugly truth, and ultimately strides forward to a future—even if it’s one without a car and her Gene Clark albums. Marissa Nadler offers up some painfully human depictions of heartbreak, but her willingness to live and learn brings her latest work from dour depths to heavenly heights.