If American westerns were told from the all-seeing eye of Mother Nature, Marissa Nadler’s The Path of the Clouds would be the result. The album is a self-produced dreamscape — a collage of short stories traveling from past to present and back again. With a voice built to haunt but used to soothe, Nadler strings together a hypnotizing mystery with far more open endings than strict conclusions.
Far from a hindrance, the liminal lyrics invite the listener to twist tales in their heads long after the songs have ended, a key characteristic of the folk music from which Nadler’s songs are reminiscent. The opening track “Bessie, Did You Make It?” is a contemporary approach to a staple of Gothic Americana: the murder ballad. Often vengeful tales of women scorned, Nadler flips the script, painting a tale of female survival. The backing instrumental is a gauzy fingerpicked guitar, filled out by reverb and spectral flute harmonizing in the tone of the clouded haze the album’s title suggests.
The air of mystique enveloping all 11 tracks is a result of the “Unsolved Mysteries” episodes Nadler watched through bouts of writer’s block. The title track, “The Path of the Clouds,” was inspired by famed hijacker D.B. Cooper who disappeared after leaping from a plane with — as Nadler sings — “200K and four parachutes.” The subjects of her songs are not the heroes. They are murderers, thieves and criminals, and yet, in the melodies of Nadler, one hopes that they managed to get away.
Her falsetto is spell-binding, the kind of voice heard in a dream that can’t be replicated once awake. In “Elegy”, the softest of the tracks in both subject and tone, Nadler is at her most vulnerable, allowing her vocals to stream out clear amid the stripped-down backing track. “Make me an enemy/ Make me so bad you have to leave” she hums, reaching a more blatant intimacy than the folktales told in the other songs. She is bathed in heavenly synth and soft guitar, dipping into a new sound that is less tethered but more intimate than her previous works.
Yet, Nadler doesn’t hide behind tales of disappearance to prevent the listener from connecting with her. “Well Sometimes You Just Can’t Stay”, at the surface, tells the story of the only successful Alcatraz escapees. The lyrics are heavily literal, asking “Did you drown in the ocean/ Or make your great escape?” However, once paired with robust backing, a heavy instrumental interlude and the album’s holistic context, the song stands as a story of transformation and beginning anew.
Despite the specialness of her voice, the record is stifled by its repetition. With each song nearing or often surpassing the four-minute mark, the tracks are sometimes hard to distinguish from one another. Nadler’s tone is never shifting, unable to escape the whisper that carries across all 46 minutes. Even in the occasional monotony, the work is saved by its masterful production and folklore intrigue.
Nadler does offer the listener a break from the haze in “Couldn’t Have Done the Killing,” where she seamlessly integrates heavier electric guitar into the airy landscape she constructed. In self-contradiction, the metal influences don’t tear open the surreal atmosphere, but rather catapult it to new heights.
In a blend of fantastical sound and level-headed lyrics, Nadler’s The Path of the Clouds is a refreshing modern addition to the American Gothic genre of music. Despite stories of vanishment and dreams of escaping reality, Nadler doesn’t shy away from what all folk music is about — the truth.