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Nina Nastasia turns trauma into beauty on Riderless Horse

"Riderless Horse"

Release date: 22 July 2022
Nastasia cover
21 July 2022, 08:30 Written by Janne Oinonen
‘’You set a blaze inside our house, you burnt it down and smoked us out…how can I love you from now on?’’, Nina Nastasia sings at one particularly intense point on the harrowing, bleak but also warily hopeful and unexpectedly beautiful Riderless Horse.

The New York-based songwriter’s first album in 12 years documents the aftermath of her 25-year relationship with producer and close collaborator Kennan Gudjonsson. Its songs provide a reckoning of how their relationship wilted into an abusive, dysfunctional circle of control, manipulation and misery, a fraught situation that led to Nastasia giving up on making music, and which remained hidden from the outside world. In January 2020, Nastasia left the couple’s small apartment; the following day, Gudjonsson took his own life.

Recorded with Steve Albini with no ornamentations beyond Nastasia’s voice and acoustic guitar, the 12 songs on Riderless Horse examine all aspects of a long-term relationship corroded by abusive behaviour. Love and affection float just beneath the surface of songs that depict a couple who ‘’get off on a terrible time’’ and whose lives together are scarred by receiving and returning metaphorical punches (the hypnotic “This Is Love”). Elsewhere, meanness lurks underneath upbeat accounts of drunken trawls through the city (“Blind As Batsies”).

The sheer heaviness of the subject matter – not to mention the unconcealed grief from the circumstances that led to these songs – makes the self-consciously underlined bleakness of lesser songwriters seem more blatantly like the playacting that it really is. In terms of naked emotional candor, only Sufjan Stevens’ post-bereavement reflection Carrie & Lowell comes close.

However, Nastasia has turned her harrowing experiences into genuinely beautiful songs. At first, the bluntly matter-of-fact tone of the writing and simple melodies seem almost artless and first-draft rough. Over consecutive listens, the cumulative hypnotic pull and elemental, harsh beauty of the songs and especially their lyrics becomes evident. It’s pointless to try to pick highpoints on a record that is conceived more like a novel than a collection of individual tracks, but “Ask Me” weds its dark foreboding (‘’I’ll be the one/to choose life over illness/to be born of this deadness and leave…but oh what a price I will pay’’) to a haunting melody that could well have been around waiting to be utilised for centuries. All the sadness, guilt and grief that precedes it makes the hope of the final words on Riderless Horse shine even brighter: ‘’I am ready to live’’.

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