The Marble Index / Desertshore by Nico

Release date: March 29, 2024
Label: Domino Recording Company

Known for her stint with The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico, Nico embarked on a solo career, starting out with Chelsea Girls released the same year, followed by her next two albums; The Marble Index and Desertshore. Originally released on Elektra and the Reprise label between 1968 and 1970 and reissued by the Domino label from their original tapes on a new CD and Vinyl release, Nico’s two solo albums represent a change from her baroque and folk-like textures in what was shown in Chelsea Girls, but delving deeper into darker territories by proving herself that she was more than just your typical fashion model and working with Lou Reed.

When you put these two albums on, you get a sense on why Nico was so far ahead of her time. She wanted to push the envelope by using a harmonium and imagining her listeners going through a trance by taking them into a poetic guidance with her lyrics.

Inspired by The Doors front man Jim Morrison, who advised her to write her own songs, she was up for the challenge. Not to mention that the second album was named after a texture from the William Wordsworth poetry; The Prelude or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind; An Autobiographical Poem.

And whatever would people say about what was going on behind the recording sessions and the tensions between her and Velvet alumni John Cale, The Marble Index gives us a crystal ball as we go inside this cold, bitter, futuristic, and insane torture that bursts through the floodgates.

You have the honky-tonk piano playing in tempo, the sound of clutter, alarming harmoniums, and Leslie-speaker voices in the heavier rein on ‘Facing the Wind’, followed by Cale’s string arrangements with its Schoenberg approach with ‘No One Is There’ which is a nod to the opera Pierrot Lunaire.

You feel as if Nico is walking down the empty streets of her hometown in Berlin during the post-war in the mid-to-late ‘60s as if the city itself is in this ghost town by walking inside those abandoned buildings, you can imagine something had gone horribly wrong.

The droning textures behind ‘Frozen Warnings’ is a response to The Velvet’s first album, continuing where ‘Venus in Furs’ had left off while ‘Lawns of Dawn’ takes you into this Saens-sque waltz of death and the effects itself, might had inspired Tangerine Dream to write ‘Nebulous Dawn’ from their 1972 classic, Zeit.

Desertshore remains an earlier proto-type for the goth movement in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s and championed by Bjork, Morrissey, and industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle who did a reinterpretation of the album as The Desertshore Installation in a 12-CDr set. When I think of Desertshore, I think of the complexity and the harshness that hits you, inside your gut.

The opening track ‘Janitor of Lunacy’ which is a tribute to her friend, Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones who died in 1969, is an uplifting composition giving Brian a perfect send-off to go up to the heavens. I can imagine that Peter Hammill might have been inspired by this album whilst he was doing the sessions for In Camera at the time he was writing ‘Gog’ to get the rapture’s going.

 

‘The Falconer’ is a world filled with decay with the watcher, looking down upon the ruins and deserted atmosphere, knowing that he will be the next causality before he makes his last rite to the holy father in the blue sky with ascending turned minor piano arrangements to be dragged to his cell, waiting to be executed the following morning.

Meanwhile, Nico’s son Ari Boulogne, appears on the album on the short turned ominous lullaby sung in French ‘La Petit Chevalier’ while Cale’s violin sets up this alarming cry for the nightmare to occur in ‘Abschied’ as they come back to the Velvet’s first album once more. And then something changes after the first five tracks on Desertshore.

The clouds begin to part as the first ray of sun comes across the pond with the sombering piece, ‘Afraid’. I get the feeling that Nico has returned to her Chelsea Girls-era, fighting back tears, and looking up to the heavens, knowing that she’s not alone and despite what the next chapter will be in the ‘70s until her passing on July 18th, 1988, her legacy will live on.

She comes back to earth with a crossover between Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass with some dooming approaches returning to her childhood on
‘Mütterlein (Little Mother)’ where she bids farewell to her mom, Margarete Paffgen who died in 1970. The closing track ‘All That Is My Own’ delves into this Acid Folk-like style which resembles Comus, and the usage of a fanfare brass sound from the Mellotron as Nico brings it home.

Most of the songs that were featured in her third album would be used in the 1972 surrealistic film, La Cicatrice Interieure (The Inner Scar) directed by Phillippe Garrel, and it starred alongside Nico, Ari Boulogne, and Pierre Clementi (Belle de jour, The Leopard). The film bears some resemblance to Jordorwsky’s 1970 avant-garde midnight western classic El Topo and his controversial 1968 film debut Fando Y Lis.

All in all, The Marble Index and Desertshore are not for the faint of heart. Nico’s music can be very challenging. Whether you get it or you don’t, you have to give her the true recognition that she deserves, and why she was so far ahead of her time.

A complicated legacy? Yes. But when you prepare yourself to dive into The Marble Index and Desertshore, you get the feeling that she’s luring you into her territory and realising how much her lyrics may not be suitable for the faint of heart.

So be prepared to enter the world and mystery of Nico’s parallel universe. Because once you enter her world, there’s no turning back.

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