Boomkat Product Review:
A real, bona fide all-timer, misunderstood when it was released in 1970, Nico's arid, moonlit masterpiece has never sounded more relevant, drawing from medieval folk and German classical music to sketch out a gothic landscape of death and despair. If you've never clapped ears on this one, know that its ripples of influence will have no doubt reached you several times over.
'Desertshore' arrived just two years after 'The Marble Index', Nico's notoriously desolate second album that swerved from the sound of 'Chelsea Girl', replacing its straightforward folk-pop with pitchy harmonium drones and John Cale's asymmetrical, classically-informed arrangements. It wasn't popular, but the album planted a seed that 'Desertshore' helped germinate when it proved that Nico's surreal, romantic imagery and obtuse songwriting wasn't just a phase. Nico's rejection of the status and interest she'd generated as a model, actress and member of The Velvet Underground fascinated and confused onlookers, and its aftermath is captured on 'Desertshore'. Later on, the first wave of goths would freeze Nico's revised look - swapping her blonde hair for red and dressing in all black - in rock history, but this period's shadow extends further than that. She was active during a time when creative independence was rarely (if ever) extended to women, and her choice to write such unique, imaginative and deeply vulnerable music helped pave the way for Kate Bush, Björk, even Grouper.
If 'The Marble Index' had been reactionary and cold, 'Desertshore' is dryer and, while it's still struck through with doom, Nico lets occasional beams of sunlight gleam in from the edges. On 'Janitor of Lunacy' she sounds like a traveling bard, crowing confidently over wheezing, minor-key harmonium chords, but piano appears on 'The Falconer' offsetting Nico's anxiety and providing a short, sharp reprieve. Then, after the celestial, choral 'My Only Child' - Nico's pit-stop in church, maybe - she captures a short performance from her son Ari on 'Le Petit Chevalier', pairing it with a harpsichord performance recorded in an abandoned nursery. It's unashamedly personal stuff - the album cover itself features stills from her then-partner Philippe Garrel's film 'La cicatrice intérieure', which stars Nico and Ari alongside Garrel - and Nico uses each track to map out her nomadic existence, drawing on history and autobiography more than contemporary pop logic.
She duets on harmonium with Cale's viola on 'Abschied', forming a byzantine sea shanty, and dreams of death on the heart-piercing, chaotic 'Mütterlein', the track that was played at her Berlin funeral. And 'All That Is My Own' clarifies Nico's vision even further as bright, acidic harpsichord chimes wisp around aristocratic strings and horn fanfares, dissipating into a blurry fever dream. There was little precedent for this album when it initially landed, and even though plenty of artists have approached its themes - Scott Walker, most memorably - 'Desertshore' still stands alone, a cult album for the ages. This brand new remaster, tweaked from the original tapes, sounds better than ever. What a record