A singer-songwriter’s fourth album is a difficult thing; it is not easy for a solo artist to maintain a sense of style and self without falling into the trap of the too-same. For Marissa Nadler, this challenge is made all the greater by the increasing critical acclaim each release has brought her. With Little Hells, she reveals a remarkable sense of growth while maintaining the rich, haunted sound that has become her trademark.
“Haunted”: it’s an adjective that’s hard to avoid when characterizing Nadler’s work, and on Little Hells, it’s a feeling she heartily embraces. If the album’s title wasn’t a tip-off on its own, the first track “Heart Paper Lover” sets the tone wonderfully. Dark and sweet, the song centers around a simple electronic piano melody and a veil of atmospheric noise. The effect is slightly foreboding, a feeling that lasts through the whole of the album. Little Hells was recorded with a full backing band, and Nadler makes good use of it. Muted drums carry “Mary Come Alive”, and a pedal steel takes simple, understated songs like “Rosary”, “River Of Dirt”, and “Mistress” and adds an appropriate twang of longing.
Still, Nadler’s own vocals are the focal point on Little Hells, and the full-band effect serves only to give each song its own contained personality in context. Compared to previous albums, Little Hells’ greatest achievement is its use of space. No song here is overly layered or monotonous; instead, each takes on its own sparse landscape with dreamy undertones. Simplicity is key on the album’s title track and the piano-driven “The Whole Is Wide”, showcasing Nadler’s rich voice as well as her lyrical talent. No stranger to carrying a theme, Nadler evokes ghostly imagery at every turn, as though the characters in each song exist just slightly out of reach.
Little Hells is an ache, personified; it’s no coincidence that its songs feature titles like “Loner” and “Brittle, Crushed, and Torn”. These characters struggle with belief, loneliness, and mortality in heart-wrenching fashion. It’s not an easy listen in the traditional sense, but it’s a lovely one. With Little Hells, Nadler has painstakingly crafted a world of detailed — and yes, haunting — beauty.