Willie Reviews Marissa Nadler & Stephen Brodsky’s “Droneflower”

Willie Reviews Marissa Nadler & Stephen Brodsky’s “Droneflower”

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A spectre is haunting Droneflower — the spectre of Space Ghost. Marissa Nadler and Stephen Brodsky’s unlikely collaboration drones in a new way, covers Guns n’ Roses, and finds the exact middle between dreamy folk and hard rock. Here’s what Willie thought:

 

Marissa Nadler and Stephen Brodsky share an interest in the gothic and the melancholic, but you have to imagine that if both were instructed to write songs about the same topic, you would receive wildly different results. Nadler floats on the edges of the music and whispers to it, while Brodsky plunges in with maximum force. But their collaboration transpired, and we are now left with their astonishing product. Few creative techniques prove more fruitful than comparing two dissimilar items, so they teamed up and got to work.  Something has to give, right? As it turns out, nothing gave and there’s no winner. In fact, the two hold each other at bay long enough to get through the whole thing. Like two magnets deflecting each other or a head-on collision or two evenly-matched fighters sparring, the album finds their unsteady middle ground—something immersive and unsettling. It’s a new sound.

 

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The album splits roughly down the middle, with a first half shrouded in gloom and a second half that blossoms. The first five songs are all dread-inducing, but they skip the moment of confrontation. I call this mood “walking into a dark hallway with motion-activated lights that never turn on.” It’s the sensation of being knocked back by something failing to arrive. We’re left in the dark, so to speak. Nothing has happened, but there are traces of something gone wrong. “For the Sun” comes closest to reaching an actual point of fear, but the heavy guitar strumming refuses to vary. The rhythm is patient, but the guitar tone is threatening. The lyrics are all anticipatory: “And I’m waiting for the sun to fall” and “I wanna love you.”

It helps to know that the album was originally devised as a horror movie soundtrack. The remnants of that are all over, and the music is haunted by the tracks “Space Ghost I” and “Space Ghost II.” These piano compositions play like short themes for the villain. Space Ghost is out there somewhere—not here, but you shouldn’t shut your eyes. You also get the sense that Space Ghost is a clever villain, liable to unnerve you without lifting a finger. The drama builds theatrically, like the staged tension of the Phantom of the Opera. The reappearance of the theme might be the scariest moment on the album.

The songs bend cinematic in other ways, and those offshoots are tied up with some major tonal shifts. On my first listen, I felt battered by each new direction, but as I relistened, the different routes appeared to circle a center. It cannot get too close because that would reveal the secret. So when the second half of the album brightens, there are still more images to see and images to recall.

The cover of Guns n’ Roses’ “Estranged” is a definite highlight and was directly inspired by the images in its music video. Watch it a few times and tell me it’s not actually incredibly frightening in a surreal way. I never thought of the original song as incidental music, but its slow trudge to the end is truly weird and matches its images perfectly. A mansion and its residents dressed in white appears beside a home raid and upbeat concert footage. In all, it’s just under ten minutes, a length even Nadler and Brodsky don’t match. Their cover is helped along by the control and power of Nadler’s voice compared to Axl Rose (sorry), and it also very much pushes to the end. All the hard rock generalities become specific and pointed in a version of the song that respects its ballad form. If the “I” in the song is someone other than Axl Rose, it makes you wonder what the “storm getting closer” is and who the “you” is, and sparks some connections beyond the banal. The song that seemed un-coverable receives a gift with its new context.

Stephen Brodsky and Marissa Nadler

One of the most interesting tonal mashups in the album involves the styles each collaborator resorts to as a foundation. Brodsky’s guitar goes classic rock, something like Pink Floyd, while Nadler’s style goes 1970s singer-songwriter. On “Watch the Time,” the two much-revised styles fight it out, all the while staying on the theme of a haunting. The friction satisfies in ways I didn’t expect. If the two tried to imitate the other’s style, there wouldn’t be this album. They also clash on “Dead West,” with Brodsky’s extremely deliberate picking and extra echo-y vocals from Nadler. They play like they are avoiding each other’s space, which leaves room for the ghost!

The “drone” in Droneflower appears in a different place than the packaging the album suggests—not in punishingly long tracks or explorations of resonances, but instead in the roughness of the recordings. The home studio recordings showcase the ambient hum of the recording environment. It too is a drone. In addition to making this perfect for listening on a crowded bus, the constant hum allows for all the tonal discontinuity. Usually, a drone acts as a harmonic through-line, but here it performs the same function thematically. The intention was to put the collaboration to tape, and that happened. The exercise of crossing over invigorates the performances of Nadler and Brodsky, and whatever musical ground they don’t concede is just as enchanting.

Score: As scary as being stuck in someone else’s dream from 1994.

 

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