Songs III: Bird on the Water
arissa Nadler is not everyday people. No doubt she would say all of the proper things about Harry Smith’s labors, the British bard tradition, and Appalachian plainsong. But Songs III: Bird on the Water will never be confused as the music of miners, ploughshares, or maids. Bird on the Water carries a distinct air of prep to it, a Northeastern-ly harbor breeze, as though she had refigured the people’s musics for the Ivy League.
None of this should be mistaken on ill-conceived notions of authenticity. It’s simply that among folk musicians, and especially among contemporary folk musicians, Nadler is old money: there is no California in her hair, no Hapshash whorls contorting her name. Instead, Bird on the Water is responsible and reserved, never trespassing into evangelism or bald-faced romanticism, and the resulting disconnect is as essential to Nadler as her white-linen guitar picking and pastel coo.
Nadler’s footprint is less fortuitously “stripped down” than it is deliberately Spartan: each track consists of Nadler’s skeletal thumbing and precisely one extracurricular element. A mandolin for “Diamond Heart”’s nostalgia, an organ for “Silvia”’s nautical sway, strings for “Feathers”’ gothic indecision. Nadler ushers in an electric guitar to punctuate the latter half of “Bird on Your Grave,” but its sinewy distortion remains purposeful. Nadler is a pinpoint alto, her restraint and proficiency contribute to her ink-black readings. Only when Nadler toes into stratospheric sighing does Bird on the Water truly falter—“Mexican Summer” and “My Love and I” both stumble outside Nadler’s limited songwriting range.
Nadler’s imagery—names, garments, her album title, even—are almost exclusively female, and regardless of whether that interest is romantic or narcissistic Bird on the Water spends little time pampering the fairer sex. On “Dying Breed” she examines a riskier lover without tears or anger: “Yellow the color of your skin / Black was the color of your hair … Where oh where oh where did you go / When they took your bones?” Sentimental garments, scenes, memories, all of it, really, gets Nadler’s razor edit. “The last time I saw you / You looked so much older / Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder” could just as easily have been words out of a physics text.
But Nadler’s beauty lies in her distance, especially on an album that, despite its chosen genre and subjects, is decidedly not beautiful; pretty, sure, but readily analytical and stone-faced. Professorly. Nadler’s pill is not an easy gulp, even if you suspect its subtle elitism may be imagined. Regardless, Bird on the Water stands as an imposing target for any formal criticisms. The unsatisfied can merely scoff at its airs, grunt, and scratch. Bird on the Water isn’t theirs.