Imagine my excitement a few weeks back when I randomly checked out Anna Nalick’s artist section on iTunes to find “At Now”, the eponymous lead single of her new album. And imagine again my excitement when I checked it out the other day to find that the whole album was now available.
And then imagine my irritation with PledgeMusic that I didn’t get a single email notification that either of those were available. I did, after all, make a pledge to buy the album back in 2016. Ah well… anyone who’s followed Anna’s career knows that she left the major labels in the late 2000s and has had to find other channels to sustain her career and get her music to the public. And, much like Pearl Jam’s issues touring in the ’90s after taking on Ticketmaster, sometimes the odd hiccup in getting that music out is to be expected and forgiven (still annoyed that the album was out for over a week before I found out).
I bought Anna’s debut, “Wreck of the Day”, in January 2008. I honestly don’t remember buying it… it was probably an impulse purchase when I was scouring iTunes for songs I liked. “Breathe (2 AM)” was the big single, and that’s what most likely prompted the purchase, although I really didn’t start listening to the album until years later – I recall it being an album that I tried out from time to time but never really connected with. Then, for whatever reason, in 2012, it clicked. January has purchase dates for both her “Shine EP” and “Broken Doll and Odds and Ends”. Somewhere leading up to then, I discovered this wonderful songwriter with the beautifully warbley voice. And at that point, I was hooked… Those two albums and the EP were heavy in the rotation, and I was often checking iTunes for YEARS to see if there was anything new available. And it was in that time that I would discover that… nope. She’d decided to forge her own way, getting off the major label treadmill and following her own muse in her own way, delivering goods to her hardcore fans off her website and engaging in intimate tours (that never seemed to take her up to Toronto) to keep her going. Sure, there’d be the odd announcement that the new album was in the works, but for years it never materialized.
“At Now” opens with “Burn and Fade” a slow, haunting slow burn that feels like a thematic continuation of “Shine” – “We’re all waiting on your supernova, cause that’s who you are, and you’ve only begun to shine” has turned into “Don’t burn and fade away”. Whether she meant it as a literal sequel I can’t say, but it’s a feeling I can’t shake off. It’s a great way to start the album, on a haunting sense of unease and tension, before exploding into Anna’s emotive and pained howl. It’s an emotional opening that would carry through the rest of the album.
Back in the 90s, one of my college classmates once commented that “Everyone in Pearl Jam’s universe is fucked up”. I think that sentiment could be applied to Anna’s universe too. Or at least the one she writes about. There are dysfunctional relationships abound, like the plea to a lover in “Burn and Fade” to the denizens populating “Stone”. Here you’ll find a woman who seduces her ex-lover’s brother, that ex-lover being comparable to the titular “stone”, as well as an admission of the same thing coming from the song’s narrator as well. The song title’s reference also shifts into a metaphor for a breakdown of cummunication (“a stone’s throw away from our own language”).
“Pegs” opens on what feels a little throwaway and silly – “my lover’s got pegs where there used to be legs” to something of a country vibe. My first feeling on hearing it was kind of “what is this?”, but as the song goes, it loses that throwaway vibe and builds to something much more intense and moving. It’s not my favourite song on the album, but it definitely has its moments.
The title track is definitely one of the best, and you can see why it was chosen for the lead single. From an opening guitar riff reminiscint of Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page”, it weaves and shimmies through a number of pieces, all of them different but cohesive at the same time, and escalating in intensity. Definitely sounds great cranked up. Beyond that though, it seems to be a dialogue between her and her demons, some of whom take quite the thrill in grinding into her and her self-esteem. She’s sung about messed up people through her career (I’m still not entirely sure what “Breathe” is about, but look at each character and they’re all dealing with issues). I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s dealing with some demons of her own (but really, what artist isn’t?)
On the topic of “art”, I would definitely classify this album as that. It doesn’t feel designed to appeal to a mainstream audience (if she were interested in that, she would have pleased the major label and gone on to write another “Breathe”). It feels like the ten best songs this singer/songwriter put together over the last seven years, songs that meant something to her and resonated with the live audiences that she’s been playing to in that time.
Musically, it’s largely an Anna Nalick album, playing with the same sort of palette she’s been playing with since her first album. It drifts pretty close to country from time to time, and also drifts sonically into areas reminiscent of Tori Amos’ “From The Choirgirl Hotel”. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s a fan.
Some of the songs are comprised of distinct “movements”; rather than utilize a simple form and bludgeon it throughout, she breaks many of the songs up, altering the rhythms, moods and tones, while still maintaining the elements that make the song “the song”. “Stone” is a prime example, opening on her voice over a very simple beat and rhythm, only to add distinct levels of complexity as it goes. It builds in its final minute to something quite lively, and has become easily my favourite track on the album.
I suspect that one reason for this is the album’s long gestation. I know that she’s been performing a lot of these songs live for many years now. Indeed there’s a performance of “Aura” on YouTube that is the same length and general vibe, but is not the exact same song. Having taken the time to put the album together over a number of years, I suspect she’s had a chance to go back and revisit these songs constantly. Plus, the road testing – playing them live over and over again prior to the release of the records must have allowed her to really dig deep on these songs.
One thing that must be said on this album… sonically, it sounds great. Considering that she left the major labels years ago, there was always the possibility that it might have suffered production-wise. But it doesn’t. Far from it, actually. This album actually just sounds great.
Pop. Folk. Country. Bluegrass. Gospel… it’s got traces of all of them and more in there, but it transcends any particular genre to simply be an Anna Nalick album. I’d say it’s my favourite, out of all three. While none of the tracks so far feel like stone-cold classics like “Breathe” or “Shine”, as a whole, I’d say it’s her strongest effort effort so far. In a fairer world she’d have the reach of her debut, but chances are it’ll largely play to her fan base. One of the prices one pays going their own way. But, you know, that fan base, whatever its size, seems to be pretty passionate, buying up handmade goodies and memorabilia off her website (the site’s just selling music now, but it used to have all kinds of really neat looking stuff), pledging the album and interacting on social media.
I’m not a music reviewer (despite the fact that I’m currently reviewing some music). I’m just a guy who went looking for someone else’s thoughts on this new album and not finding anything (WTF Allmusic?), and decided to put my own two cents (well, I’m Canadian, so it’s really only a cent and a half) out there.
The verdict? If you’re an Anna Nalick fan, you’ll likely love this album. If you vaguely remember her from well over a decade ago, you may find this worth a look. Even if you’re neither, if you enjoy well written songs, excellent melodies and passionate singing, you may well enjoy it. I personally love it, and while I’m not a giant fan of every genre she pulls from, the album itself is an absolute joy to listen to (as long as you take joy in slightly downcast songs about troubled lives and screwed-up relationships… you know… the stuff she’s been writing about from the beginning).
Definitely worth a listen… should it ever be released in the format, I may very well pick it up on vinyl too… just because.