Album Review: Marissa Nadler’s July

july-sacredbones-coverSinger/Songwriter Marissa Nadler released July, her sixth studio album last week, and it looks to be a cold month.

Nadler’s style is often categorized as “dream pop”, a sub-genre of alternative rock that features atmospheric music and ethereal vocals. Her mezzo-soprano voice is reminiscent of Norah Jones, and she frequently overdubs herself for harmonization. The music is almost totally percussion-less, relying on her acoustic guitar skills to provide the rhythm with flowing arpeggios. Layered on this is a bed of synthesizer chords and sometimes slow electric guitar notes. The effect is almost the acoustic equivalent to a Rothko painting, with large blocks of dark colors evoking a moody, hazy atmosphere.

Musically, it’s actually quite challenging. Miss Nadler has no fear of dissonance; the layers of sound sometimes clashing and resolving in waves of anticipation of resolutions that almost arrives, but not never quite completely. Its effect is intentionally unsettling.

Unfortunately, the lyrics do not quite deliver on the evocation that the music promises. Apparently this album is about a painful breakup she had; that much is apparent from the tales she spins in this collection of songs. The lyrics are very, very personal; perhaps too personal. We are offered images and ideas that obviously mean a lot to her, but we’re left a bit in the dark. It’s like someone posted on Facebook, “Well it looks like I’m single again. I should have made that paper airplane after all. I don’t want to talk about it,” and we’re thinking, “Paper airplane? What’s that about?” In effect, she’s wearing her heart on her sleeve, but she’s got her shirt turned inside-out and we can’t quite figure out what that stitching is supposed to be.

July is a masterful and unusual album musically. It stretches the boundaries of what can be done in a field of music that tends to value its boundaries enthusiastically. In fact, the music itself really offers a better view of Miss Nadler’s state of mind than the words do, and that can be a difficult thing to do. Her background before getting into music was in the visual arts, and it looks as if she has done a remarkable job in making the transition from sight-based art to sound-based art. This would be an excellent album to sit with a cup of coffee and let the mind wander, if you’re feeling a little depressed and want to savor it.

On a scale of 1-10:

Art rating – 8

Entertainment rating – 8

Click here for Marissa Nadler’s July on iTunes, complete with song samples.