If you only knew Nico from Chelsea Girl (i.e. you had never heard The Velvet Underground & Nico nor were you aware of her subsequent reputation), I have trouble imagining the shock of this record. It’s a little like what later happened with Scott Walker, albeit not nearly as radical, but it took Nico less than a year for the change rather than decades.
I have no formal music education and not much of an ear. Cale claims Nico’s harmonium was out of tune the entire time – I don’t think it sounds particularly out of tune with itself, but what do I know – and that Nico would just sing completely out of tune with the harmonium. That latter thing seems more likely given bother her voice and the way that voice seems to float above or outside of the music. So, apparently Cale than wrote arrangements for the harmonium and didn’t worry about the voice. Due to my lack of musical education, I cannot tell you this is for sure what happened, but I can say that Nico’s voice does feel particularly disjointed from the music, which is one of the reasons the record sounds so strange, whether you’ve heard Chelsea Girl or not. (I feel, though, that Cale indulged some impulses in these arrangements he wouldn’t have been allowed to elsewhere.)
The result of Nico’s curious approach to songwriting and Cale’s decision to ignore her voice is one of the weirdest “singer songwriter” records you’re likely to hear. It’s so out of touch with what was going on not just in the folk scene but in most of the popular music scene that it feels like there is very little precedent for it. (Some of the Velvet’s most radical softer music from this period feels like it is on the same spectrum.) And, it’s true, if you’ve listened to certain types of music from the post punk world, or certain more radical singer-songwriters in the chamber folk/chamber pop world, you can definitely hear an influence here, though I would say that few of those influenced by Nico were willing to go this far away from folk/pop convention as Nico is here.
It’s a remarkable record but it is absolutely not for everyone. I can imagine so many people encountering this and just not knowing what to do with it, whether or not context is considered.