Review Summary: Twisted parables
If cut, I’m not convinced Heart Shaped Bed
wouldn’t bleed. After all, it’s difficult to tell whether Nicole Dollanganger’s tales of blood and lust were intended to be just that – fiction – or something more akin to extended metaphor. To be sure, the album’s chronicling of murder and uncle fucking is, no doubt, “just that” (or so we’d hope). But it’s through an effective amalgam of heart-rending performances, delicate song-writing, and some all-too deliberate production choices that the album is transformed into something altogether “more”. Of course, most apparent in Dollanganger’s writing is her penchant for dressing up tropes of the fantastic in cherubic gowns. (The converse is also often true.) It isn’t the music’s unsubtleties, however, that give rise to the magic inherent in its form; and rather, it’s that which these games of dress-up attempt to blind us to that constitute the heart beneath the album’s well-stitched garments.
On ‘Side A’ of Dollanganger’s Heart Shaped Bed
– the title ‘Blue Valentine’ would be just as appropriate – the singer embodies the despondent housewife, abject and servile, remorseful though dormant. Opener ‘Uncle’ (FKA the much subtler ‘I Slept with My Uncle on My Wedding Night’) establishes her passiveness with mournful detail:
I wake up and I creep
Down the hall, to your feet
Where I lay like a dog (for you)
In silk down to my knees
Side A’s centrepiece, ‘Lemonade’, is much the same. Detailing another of the bride’s sexual improprieties – this time in response to rumours that her husband has “one on the side” himself – the song, despite its protagonist’s attempt at enacting vengeance, thrusts her further down a path of self-abasement. For, just as in ‘Uncle’, the bride’s actions lack a certain self-determination. As a result, emptiness takes form, alongside a self-effacing subservience manifesting itself in the production surrounding it. Distinct from much of Dollanganger’s heavier works, ‘Side A’ capitalises on the inherent power in the artist’s soft-spoken, seraphic vocal prowess, setting her voice atop gentle, though no less despondent piano ballads. Stuck at the centre of the album’s first half, however, ‘Lemonade’ fails to break free from its self-imposed shackles. Such is reserved for the album’s second half. Though what the lead single does do is hint at a breaking point, a willingness to act: “Take you upstairs, to the swan bed / Let you fuck me, hard as you can…” And with these words, a glimmer of dissonant drum shakes complement what appear to be distorted vocal harmonies, harrowing and sad. The moment is slight. ‘Side A’ is slight
. Yet, in spite of this, its sadness is tangible, its tales true; and without it, the album wouldn’t, perhaps couldn’t, be as it is.
A soft breeze beckons – alongside the ugliest of synth stabs – distorted guitar cracks that characterise the greater part of ‘Side B’. Co-written and produced with Matt Tomasi and famed metal engineer Arthur Rizk (of, as I understand it, Power, Prurient and Inquisition fame), the second half of Heart Shaped Bed
(‘A Tale of Cum of Blood’) is just as one might expect. Or not... Despite its heav(enl)iness, ‘Side B’ fails to match the extremes of Dollanganger’s past work. ‘Bad and Beautiful’, in particular, though it falls on the abrasive end of the album, is a shadow of the gash that appears on the Cute Aggression EP
. Yet, where ‘Side B’ does succeed is in its contrast to that which comes before it. Brought to life (or, perhaps, reanimated) with the help of Rizk, ‘Snake’ is the turning-point that ‘Lemonade’ (and indeed, much of ‘Side A’) hints at. In a manner as immediate and confronting as the bride can conjure, she sings:
In the hazy blue, you look so sweet
I almost forgot what you do to me
If I let you…
Dollanganger’s vocals here are as provocative and bellicose as the character deserves. Teeth grit, drill at her side, the bride at last exacts revenge for her husband’s brutal lovelessness, and the experience is immaculate. Of course, the album’s despondencies remain. Whereas on the first half this sadness manifested in toothless attempts at mental destruction, however – through an over-reliance on the album’s others (who, at least in part, fail to exist at all in the universe the album conjures) – ‘Side B’ provides its speaker with more material means of inflicting an even greater deal of pain.
In part, I think that’s where this album succeeds. Or, at least, where much of its intrigue lies. Dollanganger, perhaps unwittingly, finds herself playing with the constantly shifting boundaries between the physical and metaphysical. On ‘Side A’, the speaker attempts to externalise her pain, unidentifiable, through dangerous, incestuous affairs. ‘Side B’, on the other hand, sees her transcending this, reaching a sort of apotheosis, through (and after) which she's able to inflict wounds of a more mortal nature -- from the vantage point of perhaps not heaven, but a hellish, supernatural limbo of sorts.
Exploring that of the parable (in relation to Kafka), critical theorist Theodor Adorno wrote of allegories, "the key[s] to which [have] been stolen”. I don’t think Heart Shaped Bed
is, by any means, impenetrable in the same way – it is, at times, quite the opposite – but what Dollanganger manages is to immerse the listener into a world that is as fanciful as it is identifiable, grounded within the darkest of our realities. As a result, its universe feels "real", in some sense; or, at the very least, “true”. And in truth, I find it difficult to tell whether Heart Shaped Bed
was intended to form a wholistic narrative or not. If it did, as I've assumed, the bride in ‘Uncle’ might be the same as that in ‘Lacrymaria Olor’. Just as likely, though, is that Dollanganger's chosen to play medium, in an attempt to conjure and, in turn, voice the tales of ten kindred spirits, heartbroken and vengeful. In this sense, then, Heart Shaped Bed
, the two-part tale of cum and blood, is much more like a tomb of twisted parables, one foot in this world, and one another.