“Outlaster” is Nina Nastasia’s fifth album in her own name and her first release since her 2007 collaboration with Dirty Three drummer Jim White. This new record is a tour-de-force, simultaneously adding a new dimension to her sound and upping her (already high) game yet sounding reassuringly familiar and uniquely like no-one else.
“Outlaster” replays Nastasia’s trademark sparse spectral-folk sound, again with the pin-drop precision recording of Steve Albini, but adds in vigorous orchestral accompaniment. Now most ‘sympathetic’ orchestration often means subtle, low-key strings pushed to the background. Here the versatile arrangements scored by Paul Bryan and performed by string and woodwind quartets alongside guitar and drums mean something else entirely. Strings and woodwind are not simply foregrounded effectively but are utterly integral to the delivery and emotional impact of the songs as they swoop, twist and turn as forcefully as Nastasia’s voice.
Sometimes the vigorous horns and strings conjure places and atmospheres: the hint of dusty and mysterious North African bazaar in ‘You’re A Holy Man’ or the tough dockside rough-and-tumble tango of ‘This Familiar Way’. Other times they echo or mimic the bare sensations and tensions in the songs. Single and opening track ‘Cry, Cry, Baby’ opens with just acoustic guitar and voice but within seconds deep, resonant strings as mournful and graceful as the flinty caress of Nastasia’s vocals come in. As the song changes key and the voices rises so do the strings as though reacting to the shifting emotions in the same way as the singer. In ‘What’s Out There’ the orchestration loses some of its cool restraint and is as wild as the overgrown garden sung about, as whirling as its cascading passions with the hint of sudden violence never far from the surface (“Oh window, window / Smash it out”).
And you realise how effective the music is at conveying the emotional life of each protagonist when you realise how few words there across these ten songs. The pared down lyrics of ‘Cry, Cry, Baby’ suggest a woman considering the break-up of her relationship – or is she simply resigned to enduring a loveless marriage? This ambiguity and hints of a deeper back-story have the power of a Raymond Carver story in miniature. ‘One Way Out’ takes this even further. It is not a long song - a shade under three minutes - but it is a shock to see the lyrics written out and realise it only has 27 words in its entirety with no repetition. This is a song that moves from hope (“if we can tend / the fire could burn forever”) to suicidal bleakness (“for me there is one way and no denying / one way out”) in two lines but it feels like an unfolding three-act drama.
The calming ‘You Can Take Your Time’ almost stands alone with its upbeat feel – vocals with a soft Southern twang (at times like Lucinda Williams) and a generous mood in offering space and a lack of judgement to a presumably erring lover. In the main however songs focus on break-up, pain and death (‘Wakes’ starts watching a funeral) although they are never as grotesque or horrific as the hellish ghostly album cover could suggest. Final song ‘Outlaster’ brings together these dark themes and musical and lyrical traits into an elegiac closing sea-ballad, as shimmering and epic as the swell of the ocean, as chilling and final as death itself. The closing image of sailing away into an unknown future is as timeless and powerful as Greek myth.
In ‘This Familiar Way’ the central character’s dilemma is summed up thus: “Would I still keep you / could I suffer you to stay?” The opposing force of these polar opposites is indicative of the tensions and contradictions found throughout the record. For all the dark ambiguity and gothic shadows of death and separation, this is not a harrowing record: there is exquisite beauty in its bleakness. For such a quiet record with moments of tender intimacy, at times it blazes, roars and sounds epic enough to fill a cavernous concert hall. And for all its morbid intensity, “Outlaster” demands frequent and repeated listening.
A record of peerless and sombre majesty that is (another) high-water mark in Nastasia’s career and one that I will be listening to for the rest of this year and beyond.
Nina Nastasia - You Can Take Your Time by FatCat Records