There is something distinctly unnerving about Marissa Nadler’s voice. Breathy, reverb sopped and given to unpredictable dips and hops, it is an unpredictable thing. From that comes its nervous sort of beauty like a flame or leaves in an idle wind.
Nadler’s voice is her greatest strength, and on her first three albums, she seemed acutely aware of that fact. These releases were mostly quiet affairs, with Nadler accompanied occasionally by other instruments but more often by just her hypnotically picked guitar. The formula reached its apex on 2007’s Songs III: Bird on the Water, which sounded like nothing so much as folk music played in a graveyard. Though Songs III graded as an excellent album, it didn’t provide any clear roadmap for where Nadler should move on to. What remained clear: Nadler had pretty much exhausted the guitar-and-voice format and would need to move on to something—anything—different.
To her credit, Little Hells finds Nadler trying to do just that. For one thing, most of the songs here feature a full band, complete with drums, bass and electric guitars. More esoteric instruments get in the mix, too: organs, lap steels, synths, hell, there’s even a theremin in there. But while Nadler’s effort should be commended, the results are decidedly mixed, and Little Hells is a much more uneven record than Nadler’s produced before—and, in some ways, a much more interesting one, too.
The disappointment lies with some of the songs that Nadler has added conventional instruments to sound more, well, conventional. Nothing the band does classifies as all that interesting, and so songs like “Rosary” and “Mistress” plod forward on the backs of insipid drum beats and uninspired electric-guitar flourishes, making Nadler’s music a total bore for the first time.
“Mary Come Alive”, meanwhile, is a better song on its face, but it articulates Nadler’s limits more clearly. The song starts with an unexpected, almost brash drum-machine beat, and for a brief moment, it sounds like Nadler will travel someplace truly different. Here she doesn’t push herself far enough: The drum machine fades out; a real drummer takes its place; and the song settles into something rather less audacious than it originally seemed to be.
When Little Hells truly succeeds, Nadler marries her usual songwriting style with the new, more-diverse instrumentation. The most obvious example, the album-opener, “Heart Paper Lover”, finds Nadler singing over a mesmerizing, arpeggiated electric-piano line while the aforementioned theremin drifts in and out. The title track would sound like a cut from Songs III were it not for the church organ swirling in the background, and “The Hole is Wide”, which rides on a simple-but-affecting-piano-chord progression, features some of the most-striking lyrics on the album.
“Loner”, the album’s unquestionable highlight, layers Nadler’s vocals over a wacky, carnival-esque organ line. “I believe you’re filled with sin,” she croons, and then adds, with a smile and a sly wink: “like me.” It’s a sucker-punch of a song, and it leaves in its wake a heady, reeling feeling. Unlike Songs III, Little Hells pales in comparison as an unpolished affair. However, even through all its missteps (tracks like “Loner”; “Little Hells”; and “Brittle, Crushed, and Torn”), Little Hells proves just how appealing the rough diamond can be.