Reviews of albums by Christa Päffgen aka Nico:
Albums featuring Nico from 1967:
The Velvet Underground and Nico (10/10)
It’s hard to put into context just what a radical record this was when it came out. (Even more radical when it was recorded, nearly a year earlier.) With the exception of the opening track, which tricks the listener into thinking they might be listening to some kind of arty Dylan imitator, there is practically nothing in popular music history to have prepared the listener for the onslaught of a combination of high and low culture perhaps unequaled in music history. Avant garde “classical” music meets garage rock. It would make no sense if it didn’t make so much sense.
Not only was this record one of the couple most path-breaking pop rock albums ever made when it was released, but it also inspired so many people to try to make music themselves that it’s kind of hard to overstate its influence. Has anything sold so little and influenced so many since?
Tied for my #1 album of 1967.
Chelsea Girl (7/10)
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.
1968: The Marble Index (9/10)
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.
1970: Desertshore (8/10)
There’s something about Nico’s austere approach on this record that is my catnip. I have no idea if I would like this record this much if the songs were the same and the arrangements were more contemporary, but I like the aesthetic so much I don’t care.
When a singer has such a distinct voice, as Nico does, and when the arrangements are so distinct, it’s really hard for me to truly evaluate the songs. I have a hard time imagining what these songs would sound like in other hands which is a way I often evaluate songs. But I do think Nico is generally a decent lyricist in English – certainly she’s better than most Germans I’ve heard writing in English. Are the melodies any good? They’re alright, I guess.
But the real star are the arrangements: Nico’s voice and harmonium most of the time and then the occasional other instrument, most of which are provided by co-producer John Cale. Sometime’s Cale’s instrumentation makes the whole thing even darker but, sometimes, such as with his faux baroque piano on “The Falconer”, it considerably livens the mood. I read a review online where a very famous music critic claimed lots of music in 1970 sounded like this but I really don’t know what he’s talking about. I can’t think of too many other records that sound like this.
And the advantage of that – the austere arrangements and the no frills production – is that the record absolutely does not sound like 1970 to me. It hasn’t really dated at all, as far as I can tell. You could make it now and the only thing that makes it sound like the past is that Nico is dead and nobody sings like she does.
I just really like it a lot. It’s not as weird as The Marble Index and not as distinct and I think not as significant, but it’s still a great example of a unique artist doing what she does best: super austere faux lieder. (I don’t actually mean “lieder” I just couldn’t come up with the name for Medieval ballads…)
1974: The End (???)
I have listened to this at least once but never reviewed it.
1983: The Drama of Exile (???)
I have never heard her ’80s albums. Read my reviews of music from 1983.