On Outlaster, the more things stay the same, the more they change. Over the course of Nina Nastasia's previous five albums, she has established herself as a standout singer/songwriter: she writes singularly dark, deeply intuitive songs and sings them in a voice that can express her melodies with flair and panache. Her recordings have been stark affairs with little more than her guitar and a small backing band. On her last offering, You Follow Me, only Dirty Three drummer Jim White accompanied her in a stark, poignant song cycle of two-way conversations about endings.
By contrast, Outlaster is a 180, musically and thematically. It's opening track, "Cry Cry Baby," may begin with only her guitar and vocal in a simple country-ish four-four statement, addressing a long-lost love across the lines of time, but the second verse introduces a string quartet (arranged by bassist and pianist Paul Bryan), Jay Bellerose's drums, and Jeff Parker's electric guitar, which joins in the proceedings. Bryan and engineer Steve Albini multi-track the strings so they're enormous. On "Moves Away," a lilting reflection on distance and time's passage, woodwinds compound the strings, contrasting the intimacy of the lyric and an arrangement in which her voice shatters the tune as she pushes it into the world. French Horns appear here as well, such as on "You're a Holy Man," with the strings playing a moaning Middle Eastern fill at the end of verses above the rock band's insistent but quiet chug. "This Familiar Way" begins as a a skeletal, diary-like entry to a beloved. It is quickly transformed into a full-blown tango, as Nastasia's voice rises like a storm (which it does, astonishingly, over and again throughout the album) over the arrangements; the effect is riveting. These songs born of vulnerability are forged in pain to the point where they "outlast" obstacles or drawback. Each reported experience multiplies, building an inner strength that is inviolable. As the closing title track attests, she survives no matter what: "No wonder waning, still on I wend/A thousand years trailing/forgotten friends/all calling, all calling, reply, reply...." Outlaster is musically massive and poetically taut in comparison to her other work and is, in all its beauty, her reply.