I was fortunate enough to see Nico solo at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm back in the seventies, as I recall it just her and her trusty harmonium. It was hypnotic, riveting, unsettling.
All these words can apply to the astounding music on this wonderfully and lovingly compiled two-disc collection of her early albums The Marble Index (1968) and Desertshore (`70) plus alternate takes, demos and, in the case of the former, four precious unheard tracks that didn`t make it onto the original LP.
It would be tempting to say that Nico sounds like a hedonistic, humourless German chanteuse whose strange, melancholy songs are relentless and austere. There`s a tang of truth in that, but, hearing these plaintive songs again after far too long, I can`t help hearing other things going on. First of all, a discreet delicacy, a childlike quality. Forget the Velvets, the myths and tales of heroin-fuelled tantrums, and listen to a vulnerable girl calling out to us in a still young woman`s body (Nico was only about thirty when she made these two career-defining records, both produced with rare tact and refinement by Frazier Mohawk and John Cale, who plays all other instruments behind Nico`s touchingly stark harmonium.)
What this music isn`t, to my mind at least, is `weird`. No doubt it seemed so to some forty or more years ago, but we`ve had Bjork, Tom Waits, Marianne Faithfull, and other contrary mavericks since then (not to mention a lot of spiky contemporary jazz workouts).
Along with an bone-white arctic chill, there`s an almost playful, if tentative, warmth here too, with Nico`s then-small son Ari even singing one very brief and delightful song, Le Petit Chevalier. And on the simply titled Ari`s song, she breaks your heart singing about "my little man".
The Marble Index is musically perhaps the denser of the two albums, though on repeated listenings the music seems to `separate out` with plenty of space for Nico and the essentially sparse instrumentation to breathe.
The four outtakes from TMI are almost worth the price alone, including two songs sung in German - the emotional Nibelungen a standout - and the equally compelling Roses In The Snow.
The accompanying booklet is a model of its kind, the notes telling you much about both Nico and the sometimes tense sessions for these tracks.
Nico, who had lived quite a life, died while on holiday in Ibiza, after a cycling accident. She had been a long-time heroin addict, and apparently was attempting to get her life back together at the time of her death in 1988, at the age of 49. (Sources are conflicting concerning her age, but most agree she was born in Cologne in 1938. I take the discrepancy in the booklet here to be a misprint or oversight rather than an error.)
As I say, I hear as much a child or a young girl keening in a snowy wasteland as I do a woman of the world when I listen to these chastening, oddly purifying songs. There`s much here that is coldly beautiful - wanting warmth, barely admitting the need for comfort or anything more than weakly glimmering embers.
Evenings of light, lawns of dawns, frozen warnings, roses in the snow, farewells on desertshores... music like no other.