It's been three years since Nina Nastasia released Run to Ruin on Touch & Go. The indie label also re-released her 1999 debut Dogs, making On Leaving her first new recording in three years and her debut on Fat Cat. While Nastasia is well-known for her minimal arrangements and Southern Gothic approach to purging hurt, rage, and disappointment, it was always held in beautifully by her elegantly simple but arresting voice. On Leaving is different. The charts have been stripped back to the very bone here. A piano, a small string section instead of a bass, the acoustic guitar, and Jim White's (Dirty Three) drumming, make for a small, spiny recording that is wrapped in notions of restlessness, passage, travel, change. Memory takes its place at the head of a labyrinthine road beginning with the album's opening track, "In Jim's Room." A single fingerpicked guitar playing an abbreviated chord sequence ushers us in as White's tom toms underscore Nastasia's vocal lines. The viola and cello (arranged by Dylan Willemsa) play shimmering sounds, rather like melodic accents slipping through the lyric: "For a month I wasn't me/A thief would wait for me outside/There were nights I wouldn't let him in..." It's remembering as a cinematic act, slides flashing through, juxtaposing themselves against an undefined present. In "Counting Up Your Bones," her lone guitar picked hesitantly creates a space for Steven Beck's piano, and Nastasia's voice, full of heat, ushers in a love song that reveals the present tense, but it's so far under the derma, it fills the space between derma and blood. "...Your bones glide in/a silent tear, that mingles marrow when you disappear/A dance we weave beneath our skin/I keep you in me where the breath had been..." the guitar gets strummed, the piano becomes a percussion instrument, White's snare pops and the strings support her revelation of a love so utterly close, so completely smashface enmeshed, it sounds like she'll stop at any moment. On Leaving is brief, a mere 33 minutes, but in its sparse presentation where the singer's voice is the chief instrument, it would be almost unbearable to hear any more. Let it be said that this is not mere confessional songwriting. It doesn't fit there; but it does create a new place in the listener, one where lines, a piano chord,a skitter of a brushed snare or a swooping line by a cello or viola, puts you in the singer's world, in her very frame of execution, and it becomes breathless. On Leaving is a deeply poetic record that doesn't need to wrap itself in anger any longer, because genuine sadness has taken its place. But it's not only the songs that set On Leaving apart -- not only from her peers, but from her own catalog as well -- engineered and co-produced by Steve Albini (Nastasia and her partner Kennan Gudjonsson were the other producers) creates a simple clarity and sonic presence so that these elements also become part of the songs themselves. While it's true, those who have followed her brief career have been utterly taken with the searing honesty in her songs, virtually none were prepared for something so utterly and skeletally and hauntingly comely.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek