You could use Nina Nastasia’s back catalogue as some sort of modern day benchmark for singer/songwriters – a simple ‘this is how good you need to be, and for this long’. She’s a model for how to create something with gravity from simple means, and for making it all sound so damn effortless. She comes across, like all great narrators in song, as a kind of conduit for big ideas – both in a streetlife soap opera sense, and in a more universal existential sense. And you feel she’s driven to do all this – she keeps on coming on. Despite all that, she’s on record as saying that she was struggling in the build up to Outlaster, that she felt that maybe she’d come to some kind of logical conclusion with her style. Well, not a bit of it frankly – Outlaster is all of Nina and yet something more. It’s got all the usual dramatic interplay of the urban gothic she’s so adept in, but it has a voluptuous sheen, is fuller somehow.
You have to think that it must have something to do with the band Nastasia has behind her, which is stellar to say the least. There’s the unmistakable Albini production (all that space and gravity she has – it’s got the Albini stamp, has had since the beginning, he grants space with his productions style, space for her voice and the instruments to inhabit) but there’s a new face in Paul Bryan, an instrumentalist and arranger who has worked extensively with Grant Lee Phillips and Aimee Mann in the past. He’s added a lushness to the record, coming on at times like Nick Drake’s master arranger, Robert Kirby. Then there’s the band, comprising of long time collaborators Kennan Gudjonsson, and Jay Bellerose, plus the mighty Jeff Parker from Tortoise. They find that perfect pitch, somewhere between dramatic intervention and barely existing at all.
Lyrically, the record seems to very much fit with a sense of crisis, crisis of confidence, of relationships – and the ways in which we fight to stay afloat, alive. She’s never been one to avoid the larger issues, personal or otherwise (‘All Your Life’ from Dogs is about as powerful an anti-heroin song as I can think of) but this seems to be about an expression of some universal angst. It also seems to be a direct thematic response to her last record, 2006’s On Leaving. On ‘A Kind of Courage’ a bleak pastoral (the Nick Drake reference fits again here) she sings of how ‘no one is holding our hand/we are always alone’ (‘no it’s not fair’) and – referencing Dylan Thomas – how ‘that light coming in the door’, ‘don’t rage against it/best to ignore it’ but along with her usual sense of acceptance there is a gentle defiance – we shall endure. On ‘What’s Out There’ there is a similar sense of some larger force pressing at the walls, and as if inspired, she produces one of her strongest vocal performance to date. The track is windswept and dramatic, and she sings ‘oh window, window/I have to smash you out/And let in something mean’. It’s elemental stuff, filled with some pagan power – like some Flannery O’Connor miniature.
But that intensity of vision isn’t all-encompassing, or at least is merely a facet of her total commitment in which she isn’t afraid to pursue an idea to a conclusion, however disturbing. The pay-off is that her proclamations of strength and resolve are equally joyous and uplifting. So when she sings on ‘Wakes’ that she’s ‘got too much left in me/to never wonder if there could be something else’ that sense of endurance (outlasting) is immense. And be sure, despite the tough subject matter, the record as a whole doesn’t necessarily have a bleak feel. Even on the Blackened Air-referencing apocalyptic tango (are all tangos apocalyptic?) of ‘This Familiar Way’ there’s something to cling on to (‘and with each tear/another stitch’). And for the record, ‘You Can Take Your Time’ might be a Carpenter’s track…
So, all-comers, despite crises of confidence, and crises of possibility, Nina Nastasia has added another slab to her bulwark – she will endure, she will outlast; come listen to this before you try anything new.