Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Nico—
Desertshore


Released 1970 on Reprise
The Seth Man, December 2003ce
“She totally changed her image -- from being a blonde and wearing white into hennaing her hair and wearing totally black…And lived a dream. Everything that she did was part of this statement that now she was a different person. It was a solitary dream -- where occasional friendships were struck -- and abandoned. And the transitory nature of all of this was kind of the flotsam, the furniture of her life…with these somewhat derelict emotions. And it was so highly personal that it was very powerful.” -John Cale (from the 1995 documentary, “Nico Icon”)



As the other European member of The Velvet Underground, Cale had a closer cultural resonance with Nico although the pair’s artistic expressions were worlds apart. But a working relationship continued throughout a variety of situations that ran up until nearly the end of Nico’s life: from her first two solo albums (“Chelsea Girl” and “The Marble Index”) to the 1972 Velvet Underground Paris reunion concert, two albums for Island Records in the mid-1970s and her final studio album, “Camera Obscura.” Nico’s third album, “Desertshore” saw her bleakly personal images and ever-droning harmonium once more framed exquisitely by John Cale’s unobtrusive arrangements that succeeded in bringing a greater sense of organisation and expansiveness to her performances. As with his background stagings on her album of the previous year, “The Marble Index” Cale’s arrangements maintain the same marvelous sense of depth and shade although on “Desertshore” they cast a different leaning over the proceedings by replacing the former chill of “The Marble Index” with a climate more arid and at points lightening many of the tracks’ woefulness with glimmering luminescence. Also present is an uncharacteristically sense of compassion, with many of Nico’s songs speaking of both family and parenthood.

At the time of this album, Nico had already moved from New York to Rome where she became romantically involved with French director Philippe Garrel. The sleeve design of “Desertshore” featured blurred colour stills from his film, “La Cicatrice Interieure.” The title translated as ‘The Inner Scar,’ relating to Garrel’s own reflections on his horrific experiences with electro shock treatment and its aftermath. It is unknown whether any tracks from “Desertshore” appeared in the film but if it was predominately set in the dusty desert plains pictured on the album’s sleeve, then it would have made for a very appropriate soundtrack.

Produced by Cale and co-produced by Joe Boyd, the contrast of Nico’s clear vocals with her harmonium dream-weaving drone texturing throughout set the pace and tone of “Desertshore” from the very onset with “Janitor Of Lunacy,” a heretic canticle reeking of a sense of ominous and ancient decay. And these dry and undulating spaces continue to pass into most of the other five tracks that comprise the empty, imbued inner grace of the album. Sparse piano notes and clanging orchestral accidental noises rebound and operate as carefully placed chamber music cues throughout the monumentally slow trudge of “The Falconer” as they spread behind Nico’s deep vocals and harmonium. Soon, a sweetly ambling piano riff of childhood memories come flooding back, but this is only a momentary respite from the gloom and soon shifts back into the enveloping main theme of darkness. On the wistful “My Only Child” Nico’s full, sustained vocals are shored up by harmony vocals by Cale, Adam Miller and Annagh Wood with the only instrumentation present a barely noticeable single woodwind note. The album side is over after a brief vignette of faraway harpsichord performs in an abandoned nursery in “Le Petit Chevalier,” which is sung in French by Nico’s young son, Ari.

Side two begins with the elegiac “Abschied” (“Farewell”) as Nico accompanies her now familiar descending harmonium in German, joined by Cale’s viola as it scrapes, saws and swipes against the bow of mental ships rolling over stormy seas towards peace as the muted bass tones of the harmonium groan under their unearthly load in the background. A piano and viola accompaniment of serenity swells quietly behind “Afraid” a creation as beautiful and sad as Nico herself, rendered at the slowest pace of personal introspection. “Mütterlein” switches back to Nico’s native tongue as trumpets fanfare distant behind Cale’s random piano clusters that bang out in behind Nico’s voice, as a percussively struck piano key (or perhaps, orchestral bells) are quietly struck to sound like overworked heating pipes clanking out an insistent rhythm in the distant background as though swiftly ticking off the passing moments. Cale begins to discordantly hit out more and more low piano embankments as trumpets swarm all around and blow in squawking alarm.

But the air of disconsolation now is swept away with the lightly triumphant finale of “All That Is My Own.” Set off with fanfare kettledrums and Nico’s gentle harpsichord jingling joined by Cale’s unhesitating viola here she seems to have finally reached the end of her internal voyage across the burning sands of the dreams and desires of her life. Nico’s second, spoken voice edges out through a Leslie amplifier with the invitation to “meet me on the desertshore” as her parched caravan press onward towards the approaching and ever-greening hills. Cale’s viola swoops wildly in the background like a crazy pendulum, running over rumbling tympani outbursts and Nico’s unflagging harpsichord while those green hills continue to keep at mirage-like remove forever.

“Desertshore” is a work that for all its inner complexity flows ceaselessly with simplicity and purpose. After its release, nearly four years would pass until Nico resurfaced with her next album “The End” on Island Records, backed once more by Cale and a cast of rolling musical cohorts from the label that included Eno and Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera. But never again would her music receive the effusive, European classical embellishments as it did so beautifully on “Desertshore.”