“Pandemic albums” have become their own pop music subgenre over the past year and a half. Fiona Apple kicked off the trend inadvertently with “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” which was recorded before lockdowns gripped the world but nevertheless felt almost too of-the-moment; its homegrown feel was supplied in part by Apple and her band of musicians playing items around the musician’s house. Albums like Charli XCX’s “how I’m feeling now” were via Zoom collaborations and virtual recording sessions; Taylor Swift’s diptych of 2020 albums, “folklore” and “evermore,” furthered the genre with songs that embraced the idea of sitting by a fire and swapping stories.
Marissa Nadler’s lockdown-music path was a little different. She released cover songs that coincided with Bandcamp Fridays, a pandemic initiative by the white-label music service where it waived its standard fees for facilitating sales of music and merch, that culminated in this spring’s “Instead of Dreaming,” a collection of her windswept takes on Metallica and the Bee Gees, among others.
She also watched a lot of TV — in particular, true-crime shows like “Unsolved Mysteries.”
“I have always loved true crime,” Nadler says by phone from Nashville, where she now lives after moving from Boston. “‘Unsolved Mysteries,’ the original with Robert Stack as the narrator, was my favorite show as a kid. When it came back [on streaming services], I was also kind of having writer’s block — and you can’t be writing songs all the time.”
Nadler started to accompany her binge-watches with copious note-taking, which eventually morphed into poetry, which became the basis for some of the songs on her latest album, “The Path of the Clouds,” out Friday. “It was a fun way to start writing the record,” Nadler says of her process. “Only three songs are directly based on the true stories from watching that show, but they were huge jumping-off points thematically.”
“Bessie, Did You Make It?” retells the story of Glen and Bessie Hyde, a couple who disappeared into the maw of the Grand Canyon — and were thought to be dead for decades until a woman claiming to be Bessie turned up in the early ‘70s, claiming to have killed her husband all those years prior. The resulting song has the haze of a long-ago, yet utterly indelible memory, with woodwinds curling around an insistent chorus — ”Did you make it . . . or did you fake it?” — that leaves open whether or not the self-confession is true. “I thought, ‘Wow, why would somebody make that up?’” says Nadler.
The title track, which pairs Nadler’s dreamy vocal with sweeping chords and a churning yet melodic electric guitar solo, uses the story of D.B. Cooper, who notoriously (as Nadler puts it) “straightened his tie then . . . unlatched the door” of a plane he parachuted from with a bag of stolen cash in 1971, to ruminate on “personal freedom and re-creation,” says Nadler. And “Well, Sometimes You Just Can’t Stay,” which is swathed in reverb and razor-wire electric guitars, ponders the fate of the men who escaped from Alcatraz prison in 1962.
Ideas of escape and change run through “The Path of the Clouds,” and Nadler accompanied those themes with a cracking open of her sound. “If I Could Breathe Underwater” uses the intricate playing of harpist Mary Lattimore, an undulating rhythm, and unexpected chord progressions to simulate the feeling of bobbing along the sea. Simon Raymonde, the former Cocteau Twins bass player who runs Nadler’s European label Bella Union, adds melodic counterpoints with fluid basslines. And all over the album, big, chunky electric guitars play in parallel to Nadler’s fingerpicking; folk singer Emma Ruth Rundle adds a weepy solo to the spectral “Turned Into Air,” while Nadler’s collaborator Milky Burgess added massive electric guitars and other instruments to the album. “I let this record just grow organically,” says Nadler. “I wanted it to be different — and it is.”
“Lemon Queen,” which closes the record, pivots on the refrain “I don’t think that place is there anymore” — a line that feels like its own short story in 2021′s suspension between the pandemic era and the post-pandemic era, and one that Nadler delivers with a final resignation. “That’s a heavy song, for sure,” says Nadler. “So much change has happened in the past few years — there are plenty of restaurants that have shuttered their doors, and houses that have closed, and movie theaters that have gone out of business.”
The song is named after a sunflower variety, and its growth doubles as a way of measuring time; “seasons changed the color/and the lemon queen, it grew/taller and taller/over you,” she repeats over woodwinds and tremulous guitar arpeggios in a way that feels like its own metronome. It’s a fitting cap to this singular entry into the pandemic-pop canon; a not-insignificant part of pandemic life involved being confronted with how time can shape-shift and become its own entity, whether one is watching lots of TV or dreaming about turning into an altered version of themselves.
Maura Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.