Review Summary: And everything was merry but...
Nicole Dollanganger’s music evokes the kind of beauty that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable at times. Her voice sounds like a broken doll singing from the depths of a haunted house's forbidden attic, and her lyricism on past albums has dealt with themes of rape, substance abuse, domestic violence or death. This, combined with the smothering gloom of the music itself, makes the prospect of listening to her new album as exciting as being left alone in a graveyard during a bad LSD trip. Hence, it's not surprising that her latest release alludes to an abandoned resort in the Poconos Mountains, and to a seemingly normal wedding that takes place in the 60s. Is it a ghost telling the story? The opening song, which instantly became my favorite, describes the scene with “maraschino cherries”, and a “mirrored ceiling”, but it also adds that there is "something very strange in the air", and just like that, it only takes one line to turn a perfectly normal moment into the ominous feeling that the worst is yet to come.
On Married in Mount Airy
Nicole's innate ability to unsettle with her lyrical approach is amplified by some truly sinister instrumentation. The first track is constructed brilliantly, with a weeping violin hiding behind her voice as a slightly detuned guitar weaves the main structure; it’s thin and about to fall apart, until another guitar hums from another room and several voices phase in and out like playful wisps. The song ends with a heavy and plodding drum beat dragging it out and paving the way for the first single "Golden Satin Dreamer" to tell its own story, with different words, but again with the same foreboding tone.
"I can smell the blood purged from raw steak
By the barbecue on a summer day"
Nicole's lyricism has always been one of her strengths, and even if on a superficial level the album starts to dilute like blood on water towards the middle, reading along lines like the ones quoted above makes you realize how surgically accurate her word choices are. Each and every syllable is applied to every note with the perfect tone and delivered with the right tension, which results in stunning passages like the chorus of the aforementioned “Golden Satin Dreamer”. In "Dogwood", she defies God to take her lover from her "cold dead hands", even if the man she talks about doesn't sound like the exemplary type: a realization that goes into full detail with the kind of psychopath described in “Moonlite” and "Bad Man".
The fictional character portrayed by Nicole on this album shares some similarities with Ethel Cain's laureated The Preacher's Daughter
, both musically and in the way the artist tells a story that is not entirely fiction. Not of all what lies underneath those lyrics is true, but there's an echo of a terrible reality that resonates through the songs of Married in Mount Airy
that is hard to ignore. The central part of the album is hard to grasp, maybe due to the light fatigue caused by the little variation that takes place from “Running Free” to "Moonlite"; even if they are lyrically very intense, they just go by like an aftertaste of the first three songs. "Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus", on the other hand, sounds as wonderful as that title would suggest. Here, the ghost of a lover laments death while withering nature takes hold of the landscape. Nicole portrays the scene with master strokes and the instrumentation is subtle and effective: brushes on the drum set, howling strings and frail piano notes create a suitable space for her whimsical vocals to sway the listener in what feels like a cradle of feathers and leaves.
Married in Mount Airy
enters the final stretch with the folky "Whispering Glades", the last of the singles to see the light before this very well concealed album was unveiled to the world. Closing with a short and ethereal piece titled "I'll Wait For You to Call", the album speaks the same notes of the first track before they are detuned again, as if the singing doll was slowly running out of batteries (or the demon possessing her was finally leaving) and she's finally allowed to succumb back to her eternal slumber, free of suffering, in a dream where only the memory of broken words like these remain:
"I keep a piece of you locked in my heart
With memories I can bend into any shape I want.
And I put you over the bed or I break you in half instead
Sometimes, you're my girl, and sometimes, bitch, you're dead."