The Path Of The Clouds (Bella Union/PIAS)
By Bernard Zuel
It’s a Pink Floyd day today. At least the Floyd of drifting cumulus, uncertain thoughts and slowly unspooling guitars rather than the crushed spirit, missing fathers and rising bile version. American Floyd at that.
“Shapeshifter, a cloud above your door/Late winter, like a storm.”
On the same day that the most Floydian band around, Philadelphia’s The War On Drugs, release their new record of sacred herb-toking, spiralling jams, Boston’s Marissa Nadler asks you to imagine what it might sound like if in the early ‘70s the half forgotten, semi-genius of The Byrds, Gene Clark, had hired the four Englishman to make an album.
The answer appears to be a gently psychedelic nightscape of folk sometimes bent out of alignment but not out of shape, narcotic rock that seems open-ended, and a voice quietly asking questions beneath stories, familiar and new, that collect waves of uncertainty.
(For those playing at home, picture Floyd stepping away from Obscured by Clouds and early Dark Side planning to help Clark bridge the tortured/damaged White Light and the more expansive if not much brighter No Other. A place where a Nadler line like “It was June of 1966 you were last seen with your water wings” would sting even more.)
If you’ve been out of touch with Nadler for some time and still picture her as the spectral alt.folk singer of a decade ago, with Gothic atmospheres for companions, you will be startled here. But not immediately.
Bessie Did You Make It opens the album like the gentle cousin of Clark’s With Tomorrow: guitar giving way to piano, to wind and strings, to a thickening that hints of low-tone brass. The story is set 100 years ago: two deaths, a waterfall, a mystery and some bones in a boathouse. Who was it then who really “took their tomorrows”? Who turned up 50 years later to declare “I killed him, I was simply surviving”?
Goth enough for you?
Soon enough though comes the title track, where not only do we have a “the lunatic is on the grass” laugh slipped into a story we enter and leave (none the wiser) mid-tale, but what feels like hazy abstraction enveloping febrile bass begins to focus around the Gilmour-ish limpid guitar. And then Couldn’t Have Done The Killing steps into a full-bodied but still languid stretch of space rock, the guitar now bending.
From there, it is subtle exploration rather than introspection that dictates most songs, the firmness of instrumentation always tethering the vocals but the airiness of the vocals pulling along any potential heaviness. Storm is a low hum of mood and gentle attractiveness, organ giving it its telling touch of humanity; And I Dream Of Running opens itself up via a plane-piercing-the-clouds guitar; If I Could Breathe Underwater quietly grooves on a Herbie Flowers-like bassline that almost feels like dance.
Across nine previous albums, Nadler’s vocals have never sought to dominate, and there are many times here where she blends, or bleeds, into the background as if seeking to withdraw from view. Yet even when she is not all there, Nadler has a mesmeric effect with a persistence that belies the slightness of that instrument.
Her singing can make the line between fevered imaginings and frank physicality in these songs irrelevant. Does it matter if the figure seeing “the shadow of the gloom was everywhere” is amidst it or caught up in the tumult where “remnants of our past toppled over me”?
I think not. It’s the path of the clouds that count.