The first time I heard the Velvets’ early singles, with Nico on them, I didn’t like her voice. And for quite some time after, I don’t think I did. I’m pretty sure that, for a long time, I regarded her presence on that first album as some kind of weird aberration, forced upon them by Warhol, and completely at odds with what they were doing. (I’m not sure that’s true,I think that’s just how I felt.)
But, over the years, I got more used to her distinct voice and, perhaps more importantly, I read more and more about her solo career. I became intrigued but never managed to actually listen to her records. (In the meantime I have also gotten over my fear of interpretive music, which is good, as I used to hate records that contained no original songs.)
Nico’s debut is an austere record, a collection of songs, most specifically given to her to sing, that are either sombre or are rendered sombre by Nico’s voice and the accompanying arrangements.
The song selection is excellent and there’s not a weak one here. Jackson Browne’s songs in particular make me think I should give that guy a listen instead of dismissing him without ever hearing him. (“The Fairest of the Seasons” is fantastic.) It’s possible that, had Nico had her way, this would be a borderline masterpiece – at least, as close to a masterpiece as a record of covers could get. But we have to deal with the arrangements, and the systemic sexism that prevented a singer like Nico from getting her way.
The arrangements, some of which are well-suited, some of which are over the top, were added after the fact by Tom Wilson, just like he did to Simon and Garfunkel. (Though, in deference to Wilson, what Wilson did to them launched their career and reunited the duo.) Nico was not consulted and didn’t find out about them until she got her copy. That’s fucking absurd. The record’s got her name on it, last I checked.
I do not claim that the arrangements don’t work, most of them do and most of them shy back from the absolute excess of the era that you’d find on a Scott Walker record, or something like that. But I want to hear Nico’s vision, the super-austere voice, guitar and not much else recordings that existed before she trusted a bunch of industry men with her baby. And I can’t, because a bunch of men decided they knew better than her more than likely because of her gender. (I can’t know that for sure, but if you think I’m crazy to suspect it… well, you don’t know much about the music industry.)
So this record has to come with a massive qualifier, sort of like the one attached to Let it Be: not as the artist intended. And what do we do with that? I like this album a fair amount. I want to listen to more Nico. But I would much prefer to hear the original tapes instead, to hear what these songs sounded like stripped down, with only Nico and a couple of accompanists. I suspect that’s a great record.