Review Summary: Death and gloom are omnipresent on Nico's very intimate harmonium-infused record and yet its staggering beauty makes it an absolute classic.
Gothic has become a subculture. A very, very different subculture from what the etymology of the word would suggest. Gothicism. Medievalism, droning organs echoing in a grotesque cathedral. Church modes. A horn piercing through the darkness, a Dies Irae.
Nico, especially on Desertshore, adheres to this very definition of gothicism: lingering modal melodies on top of her droning harmonium transport you into the very origins of much of our folklore: death. Her voice is a mist horn with a deep accent and is mixed as to fill a whole space with gloom.
"Janitor of Lunacy, paralyze my infancy" she begins. This is just the first in a whole bunch of negatively connotated words she orders this janitor to bring on to her and it sends shivers down your spine as directly, in the very first line of the album, you feel as if she's asking for death yet for him to 'bring hope to them and me'. With the deep, droning harmonium minor triads arpeggiating underneath, you feel like her vision of hope might be even gloomier than her vision of life.
A track like 'The Falconer' is a Schubert-infused Lied filled with harmonium gloom, classical piano lightness and an alternative rock bass banging each few measures. What follows is the all-vocal 'My Only Child', a beautiful chorale which adds a lighter atmosphere to the tension of the album, only to be interrupted sometimes by a foreboding electronic sustained note.
What's so striking about this virtuosity of mood is that it seems completely sincere from the first second, and knowing Nico's troubled life, this convincing defeatism pulls you right into her personal hell. The lyrics are impenetrable but work with an immediacy on the emotions of the listener. The track that's a key element in this is 'Le petit chevalier', sung by her son Ari, which is essentially a child luring and threatening you into death supported by a spooky harpsichord arrangement.
After this, we are pulled right back into hell with 'Abschied': "Seinen Körper bekenne ich mich" (oh, dear, isn't German the best language to describe death?). John Cale's viola shrieks with anger and despair and Nico's harmonium is once again taking centre-stage, supporting her looming voice perfectly, and as the song fades away and the first, beautifully conventional chords of 'Afraid' begin... I just break. Nico chants 'Cease to know or to tell or to see or to be your own' - for all the musical lyricism and the beautiful viola melodies this might well be the saddest song on here, about loss of your essence, of your value and in the end - of yourself.
Nico's female baritone complements this song perfectly and makes up the balance of the album before pulling us straight into Weltschmerz and longing for death in the second German song on here: 'Mütterlein' ("Liebes kleines Mütterlein, nun darf ich endlich bei dir sein"). An avant-gardistic arrangement by John Cale with banging piano's and electronic noises in their lowest registers ressembles Liszts 'Totentanz' before the final airy misery of 'All that is my own', a harpsichord-driven faster-moving song which sums up te album perfectly.
Nico isn't here to be pleasant, neither is she a ghoul: she's a presence which makes us conscious of our mortality and of our own incertanity with it. It's both life-affirming and morbid at the same time, and it feels like you went on a wonderous hike along the Styx and have faced death after listening to the record. It's more balanced than 'The Marble Index' (1968) and feels closer to Nico's core, her comfortable harmonium being omnipresent on this record. John Cale's arrangements complement it instead of taking it over and make this a monumental album on the borderline of Gothicism, Folk rock and contemporary classical music. The album has been an inspiration for experimental ventures of artists to come, from Kate Bush's gloomy 'The Dreaming' to Björk's organ-infused 'Biophilia'.
Nico takes on our emotions directly and with an enormous vocal strength. She is one of the trombones announcing the Day of Judgement, and what beautiful music she makes.