“I’ll be the one to choose life over illness/ and oh what a price I will pay” croons Nina Nastasia on Riderless Horse. It’s a raw, keening, acoustic confessional from the 55-year-old singer-songwriter. She hasn’t made a record since 2010 when, she says, she “decided to stop pursuing music… because of unhappiness, overwhelming chaos, mental illness, and my tragically dysfunctional relationship with Kennan [Gudjonsson].”
Gudjonsson was Nastasia’s partner in life and in art for almost 30 years. He appeared beside her, in moody black and white, on the cover art of her acclaimed debut album, Dogs (2000) and remained obsessively committed to her career, pushing her to perfect each of her five subsequent LPs. “We were each other’s family,” she says in a statement accompanying Riderless Horse, “but there was ongoing abuse, control, and manipulation. We hid. We didn’t want anyone to see how ugly things could get, so we increasingly isolated from our friends and family. We were lost.”
Struggling financially and trapped in a tiny apartment beset with black mould, the couple tried to self-medicate with psychedelic medicine, which triggered psychosis in Nastasia. She spent a year in bed and left Gudjonsson on 26 January 2020. He died by suicide the following day, and she resolved to “move the f*** out of that apartment, remember the humour, find the humour, tell the truth, and make a record”. Just a woman, a guitar and a few peripheral soundtracks: a bottle opened and poured.
Riderless Horse was produced by Nastasia’s old friend Steve Albini (Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Pixies etc), who’s been helping to hone her edgy, lo-fi music from the beginning. A long-term advocate of analogue engineering, he uses Russian mics from the Sixties and Seventies to record Nastasia’s ragged acoustic guitar, in a way that makes listeners aware of the awkward inches of air between them and her intimate confessions of toxic co-dependency. You could be seated, skin prickling, in the front row of a tense, open-mic night as she sings on “Hunger”: “He’s born to abuse/ The violence excites him/ He’s wired that way… and I say stop/ over and over/ over and over/ until it all fades.”
Such terrible moments are balanced by those on which Nastasia celebrates the couple’s childlike high jinks and deep, creative connection. On the playful “Blind as Batsies” she vows: “I will go with you wherever/ Digging holes for buried treasure/ End the day with just our dirty feet.” On “Lazy Road”, she recalls the safety of a “sober dine at night” with “the fire going high to keep us warm”. But each adventure ends with broken bones, bruised souls.
Nastasia has always written melodies that circle easily until they snare you, like whirlpools, with dangerous dissonance. So “Just Stay In Bed” sways slowly between two softly picked chords until the strange current of the chorus stirs the mood and she sings, “I can be still as a pond when the lily pads keep to themselves no direction in hand/ You’re always going and flowing like rivers that crash over rocks and know just how to land.” She pulls off a similar trick on “You Were So Mad”, on which she wonders if, instead of leaving, she should have let the “fearful” Gudjonsson give her another “earful”. ‘Trust’ finds her sweet-howling, drifting off-notes into the “blackest night”. She pines, with a yawning half-yodel, for nights beneath the moon on “Roundabout”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a woman who began her career singing about dogs, there’s a distinctive canine quality to her voice, in her ability to tip back her throat and let notes tumble around at the back of a strong, resonant jawbone. There’s also a dog-tired resignation to her tone on “Afterwards“ as she accepts that “judging me” is part of “loving me” and on “This is Love” where she slumps into: “I guess I’ll just stay in hell with you if this is love/ Throw a punch or two and take a few then rise above.”
Riderless Horse obviously isn’t an easy listen. At times – as on “Go Away“ – it gets dirgy. But its truth-hounding also delivers poetry and restful release. As a longterm fan, I’m so glad to hear Nastasia singing “I’ll still move on” as she does against the rough strum of “The Two of Us”. It’s the sound of survival.