In a way, it makes a lot of sense that singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler has, in addition to her bountiful independent work, released numerous covers of other people’s songs. Sometimes it’s a one-off; sometimes it’s a whole collection; other times it’s covering songs like Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” in concert. Nadler has long been just as fascinated with other people’s stories as her own, fictional or otherwise. In a sense, she’s been as close as we’ve come in the 21st century to a folk bard, conveying to us dozens of stories and tales set to music, some set decades ago, some contemporary, and some even beamed in from the future.
This trend continues, arguably stronger than ever, on Nalder’s ninth album, The Path of the Clouds. Where her last record, For My Crimes, was straightforward and stripped down mostly to acoustics and subtle production tricks, Path sees Nadler kicking the volume back up a bit and picking up more so where her spectacular 2016 record Strangers left off. There is more electric guitar, rhythmic bass, and forward percussion on this album than any other Nadler album, and it’s mostly a welcome advancement in her sound. Sometimes the atmosphere gets the better of its songs, but overall, Path sees Nadler on fine form.
Starting off in 1928 with the historical retracing of ill-fated Grand Canyon adventurers Glen and Bessie Hyde, who mysteriously went missing, “Bessie Did You Make It?” begins slowly, steadily picking up momentum. The title track continues the history-reaching theme, with Nadler plucking up details of infamous hijacker D. B. Cooper, who also disappeared. “Well, Sometimes You Just Can’t Stay” concerns itself with a famous escape attempt from Alcatraz, clanging in on a fuzz of guitar and cymbals, as Nadler comes at us from all directions atop beds of organ and slick leads.
Her lyrics, while not always about true life figures — though her fascination with non-fiction mysteries is clear throughout — are more concrete here than usual, a trick she started to sharpen on For My Crimes. In the title track, we get specifics of the hijacking (“You wanted 200k and four parachutes”) and we get several specific dates and locations (June 1966, Angel Island, April to August) that ground her narratives amidst the airborne instrumentation. Sometimes, she rests on some more abstract notions, like most of “Elegy” or the odd “Turned Into Air”, which includes lines like “Shapeshifter, I looked at his teeth / Turning to points right in front of me.”
There are a couple references to shapeshifters throughout Path, and of storms, hearts, natural imagery. There’s a definite connective tissue running through the record, and it is probably Nadler’s most consistent and homogenous yet. But that’s also its downfall. So much of the record is led by a sort of heavy-footed, aquatic sound palette, with watery choral effects on much of the guitars. The lead guitars can feel quite feverish for a Nadler record, which is a nice change of pace for her and harkens back to some past gems like “Bird On Your Grave”, but they too frequently feel like they’re accomplishing the same task. There’s a cloudy, hazy quality to the reverb on Nadler’s voice and background vocals, too, which feels a bit rote by album’s end. The album was reportedly composed largely on piano first, and one almost wishes for more of that to come through on the finished product.
It’s exciting to hear Nadler writing and performing much more robust songs. It’s something she began doing in earnest around the July and Strangers era of her career and she has made one of her best-sounding albums ever with The Path of the Clouds – it should be noted that this is her first fully self-produced album. There are some nice surprises, like the ascending guitar lick in the bridge of “And I Dream of Running”, the long solo in “Couldn’t Have Done the Killing”, or the misty melange of sound — including Mary Lattimore’s sparkling harp — of “Elegy”, which feels like one of the few times the album breaks through its own spell.
But too many of the sonic ideas here feel less adventurous by the end of the 11-song set, with “Lemon Queen” lilting us off with a characteristic slowburner, and too often the surprising intricacies take too long to really pop, like trying to find a particularly beautiful tree amidst a whole forest. The album is suffused with atmosphere, and is full of intriguing narrative ideas, compelling lyrics, and some of her most well-observed stories. Ultimately, though, it ends up coming off a bit too staid and stuck in its own yawning landscape to truly take off.