“When they take me down the corridor, they’ll secure my wrists with ties” Marissa Nadler croons in “For My Crimes,” the title track and album opener of the American songwriter’s eighth album. Nadler takes on the perspective of an individual on death row in a songwriting exercise, pleading to not be remembered for their crimes. The opening title track is a seemingly simple song. It’s not even close. “For My Crimes” – per the album’s press release, is labeled as “a sweeping, vaguely Southern drama of voices, strings, and acoustic guitar, that walks the line between character song and personal indictment by metaphor.” – I couldn’t agree more. The song brings listeners into a haunting atmosphere shaped by eerie backing vocals from Nadler’s friend and collaborator, Angel Olsen, clear and emotive acoustic guitar, and swells of strings. All these elements combined create a sprawling, remorseful story. In For My Crimes, Marissa Nadler seeks hard truths through turmoil. The album follows Nadler as she ponders whether love is strong enough to get past numerous struggles, from the distance to falling out of love. Nadler’s delicate, mesmerizing voice alongside gentle plucking of the acoustic guitar and layered strings form an unforgettable collection of songs to add to an already impressive discography.
Following the acclaim of Marissa Nadler’s 2016 album, Strangers, the recording of For My Crimes was defined by Nadler’s need to release tension that bubbled up inside her from touring, and its impact on relationships with those closest to her. Along with the examination of that simmering tension, Nadler found herself empowered to explore with friends and collaborators. For My Crimes is an album that’s bursting with impassioned feminine energy. Her co-producers Justin Raisen and Lawrence Rothman played a part in this, following Raisen’s successful collaborations with women in all genres (Angel Olsen, Kim Gordon, Charli XCX) and Rothman’s fluidity with genre and gender (see: his 2017 album The Book Of Law). Joining Olsen, every artist who collaborated with Nadler on For My Crimes is a woman with her own style and fierce skill. Many of them have worked with her multiple times over the years, with the exclusion of saxophonist Dana Colley. Kristin Kontrol (of Dum Dum Girls) can be found in the vulnerable harmonies of single “Blue Vapor,” and Patty Schemel of Hole gives the song a new levity with her heavy drumming. In the melancholic “I Can’t Listen To Gene Clark Anymore,” Sharon Van Etten lends ethereal backing vocals. Mary Lattimore is on the harp in somber album standout, “Are You Really Gonna Move To The South?”, while multi-instrumentalist Janel Leppin plays strings throughout the album. All these women invigorate For My Crimes by giving each song a unique sense of both intimacy and dynamics.
Musically, “I Can’t Listen To Gene Clark Anymore” is stripped back. It features Nadler softly strumming her acoustic guitar, allowing for her warbling vocals to be front-and-center. “I Can’t Listen To Gene Clark Anymore” is a harrowing song you might understand too well if you recall the feeling of losing your favorite artist due to heartbreak (“’cause I remember the songs you sang to me / when it was you I was falling for”). It’s incredibly specific, and honestly, I doubted a songwriter could ever bring that feeling back up in my life. Marissa Nadler has. In “Are You Really Gonna Move To The South?”, Nadler is consumed by grief. Her voice cracks for the only time on the record. That quick crack showcases a new sense of vulnerability, transforming a lovely folk track into something truly exceptional. Nadler recalls “sleepwalking through the days,” out of her mind as she’s “tracing back the days to where you and I collide.” Marissa Nadler exudes confidence in creating slow songs that don’t require a build to a climax – but that doesn’t stop her from stretching her tender folk sound.
“Blue Vapor” already makes a strong case to be named one of Marissa Nadler’s finest songs of her career. The enthralling grunge-meets-First Aid Kit track (the verse melody holds similarities to the Swedish country duo’s “You Are The Problem Here,” albeit much less scathing) is a tight and focused slow burner. Nadler’s firm strumming on her trusty acoustic guitar with sweeping strings that lull then grow hold the song together. “Blue Vapor” is a masterpiece in creating a dark atmosphere. Dum Dum Girls’ Kristin Kontrol accompanies Nadler and together, they deliver some truly dreamlike harmonies in the song’s chorus. “Blue Vapor” sees a woman fed up after the ending of an important relationship (“doesn’t matter what you say, it’s all been undone”), who finds herself resigned to the situation (“doesn’t matter what you say, I’m done”). Marissa Nadler further expands her signature sound in another album highlight, “Interlocking.” The song is the first to include an electric guitar on For My Crimes. Nadler simply laments, “every day’s a bad day, and I’ve been so down,” before questioning her tumultuous relationship with trouble (“are we forever bound?”). Nadler experiments some more in “All Out Of Catastrophes,” making use of wry humor (“you said I live for tragedy, so I threw the keys at your head”), while her delivery is almost bored. I don’t know how she does it, but Marissa Nadler’s vocals are never anything less than haunting and gripping.
For My Crimes is a deeply intimate record. Adding to the album’s intimate nature is Nadler’s oil paintings as the abstract artwork. Nadler leaves listeners with a goodbye to the end of an era in album closer, “Said Goodbye To That Car.” While most melodies found in For My Crimes are subtle and take time to reveal themselves as accessible, “Said Goodbye To That Car” is an exception. The catchy, nostalgic hook, “119,657 and the engine blew / 119,657 and I thought of you” is immediate. The car Nadler references is one that “took a bullet in the roof in New Haven”; she also “took the plates off the back,” and let’s not forget: “I kicked off the rearview mirror.” Nadler effectively and regretfully signals the end of a relationship. Sometimes, For My Crimes is steeped in bitterness. Other times, it’s so melancholy and personal that I catch myself thinking; I shouldn’t be hearing this. Nonetheless, For My Crimes is always engrossing. Marissa Nadler’s voice is not of this world. Her lush folk sound is hypnotizing and, again, not of this world.
I’m not writing to convince anyone that For My Crimes is Marissa Nadler’s best album yet or a contender for album of the year. I don’t have those answers, nor do I want to have them. But, I do wake up with a line or two in my head, I feel lucky to be here at the same time as Marissa Nadler, I’m fortunate to be writing about this album, and I’m entranced. That’s more than enough for me.