The opening alone! 'We'll never talk about the thing we witnessed,' warned Nina Nastasia over dischordant cello and the distant funereal thump of a bass drum. You never found out what that thing was, and, dear God, you didn't want to. I can't think of a more arresting start to an album, and it only got worse – songs like 'On Teasing' and 'I Say That I Will Go' got bigger and bigger until they towered over you, blocking out the sun, ready to collapse. Sometimes Nastasia was getting drowned out by her own backing band, but she was always in control of the storm. This stuff was way heavier than any heavy metal, emotionally if not musically. Listening to it, I got visions of Southern Gothic – lynching and incest and cannibalism and plagues of locusts and bodies dumped out in the backwoods. No doubt the darkness in Nastasia's country/folk came from the soul, from everyday life, not from anything so crassly horror-movie – but there was something about her oblique, desperate lyrics that really fired the imagination.
So it's a shame, in a way, that with On Leaving she's retreated from that darkness. (For this, her fourth LP, she's switched from Touch & Go to Fat Cat Records, although Steve Albini is still producing.) It sounds not much like Run to Ruin but a lot like The Blackened Air and Dogs, her two albums before that; which means it's airy and quiet – mostly acoustic guitar and soft piano and brushed drums. Dylen Willemsa still does his unique off-key scraping thing on the viola, but there's very little cello or bass. And there's nothing scary about these songs – wistful and self-doubting and sad, but not scary. So no more Southern Gothic. Nastasia is still a truly beautiful songwriter, sure – listen to 'Brad Haunts A Party', with its contrast between the piano chords that rise and rise indomitably and the total resignation, reminiscent almost of Leonard Cohen, in the vocals - and that voice is still a wonder, sure, but, for me, three albums of this stuff is too much.
A quick Google search, however, reveals all. (Doesn't it always?) In an interview with Slug magazine, Nastasia says 'I have quite a few tracks that I don’t use from each album that are waiting to be placed on an appropriate record. This last recording we did I went into a studio and recorded all these songs that I had lying around that I haven’t documented and I recorded a lot of that stuff.' So that's why most of On Leaving sound like a step backward: it's old material. Which may actually be good news, because it shows that Run to Ruin wasn't necessarily a one-off. I certainly hope it wasn't, because its darkness was a new direction, and that's just what Nastasia needs. (Not counting 'The Matter of our Discussion', her shock collaboration with electronica producer Boom Bip, which somehow I doubt she's going to follow up.) You could compare Nastasia to Laura Veirs, who does a fairly similar folky thing and has that same kind of intimate cheerfulness that turns every so often to bitterness and aggression. But Veirs' work is so much more varied, both between songs and between albums.
So On Leaving certainly isn't a bad album. Considered on its own, it's a great one. But considered in context, it's just a little bit redundant. We've been here before.
Released 11/9 on Fat Cat Records.