The Sister, Marissa Nadler’s new eight-song disc, is a companion to her excellent, self-titled album from 2011. But Nadler’s narrative stretches back further than that. In fact, her recorded output to this point is nearly a single, sustained storyline. Since her 2004 debut, Ballads Of Living And Dying, she’s been probing the same dusky shadows—if not always lyrically, then at least thematically. But the central conceit of her oeuvre is a set of conjoined twins whose parting—both surgical and spiritual—came to a head in Marissa Nadler’s “Daisy, Where Did You Go?”, a candlelit grimoire of a song that pushed Nadler’s atmospheric, American-gothic folk to new depths.
The Sister, as its title implies, picks up where Marissa Nadler left off. But it doesn’t carry Nadler’s story far. Her characters (based on real-life conjoined twins and vaudeville-era performers Daisy and Violet Hilton) aren’t the stars; instead, the album itself is the sister—in this case to its predecessor, sharing many of Nadler’s well-worn motifs but applying them to a new, equally doomed cast. The songs “Christine” and “Constantine” sketch out these new leads; the former spins a minor-key, neo-Elizabethan tale of a young woman surrounded by those who “escort you to court you,” while the latter approaches the same scenario from the vantage of a 20th-century suitor whose wealth and fame masks his own fatalistic tragedy. The ambiguous chronology adds a dreamlike aura to Nadler’s skeletal, finger-picked guitar, as intricate and crookedly elegant as an antique music box.
As with all of Nadler’s records, though, the true star of The Sister is her voice. On “The Wrecking Ball Company,” she extends a stark metaphor to an aching degree: “You said you’d need a wrecking ball to break me / Cement around the heart,” she quavers, a bowed saw made human. What her silvery vocals lacks in range and dynamics, though, they make up for in purity, clarity, and an unnerving intimacy. For a singer-songwriter obsessed with distance and isolation, she leans in close enough to tickle the ear—that is, when she’s not crawling under the skin. Some of the cobwebs have been cleared since Marissa Nadler, though; The Sisters has a touch less murk and mystery in its corners. Backing voices, sparse piano, and other ethereal flourishes surface less frequently—but when they do, such as on the superb “Love Again, There Is A Fire,” Nadler uproots her earthy graveness and hovers angelically. As heart-stopping as The Sister is, though, it feels more like an appendix to her body of work than a fresh, essential sequel.