Last month, Grimes announced on her tumblr the launch of an artist co-operative called Eerie Organization. She also revealed its first artist: Canadian singer-songwriter Nicole Dollanganger. Clearly excited about this girl’s music, Grimes had this to say:
I cannot adequately describe it succinctly, but something like Hurt NIN sound design/ pain w Dolly Parton-esque witty profundity that sometimes gets super dark and contrasty to fluttery expressive cherub vocals. theres a smattering of Daniel Johnston vibes if that makes sense. but it also does lots of other things I’m not good at describing music. i hate comparing music to other music, you should just really listen to it.
As a person who is also not good at describing music and frequently tries to resist the impulse to merely compare music to other music (but does so all the time, and does it more below), I was instantly intrigued and took a trip to Nicole Dollanganger’s bandcamp to “just really listen to it.”
There I found a really excellent collection of free music (“all recorded in [her] bedroom/bathroom”) by one of the most fascinating artists I’ve seen in a long time.
Her baby-voiced bedroom-pop/soft-folk sounds like old Lykke Li or Lizzie Grant era Lana Del Rey, but she cites darker musical influences like goth/doom metal band Type O Negative (she plans on covering “Christian Woman” on tour!!) and schizophrenic singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston.
Though I suspect this parallel will soon read stale, Dollanganger seems to have much in common with Lana Del Rey (whom she opened for with Grimes last year). Both started by recording intimate, minimalist folk songs consisting of little but an acoustic guitar and a delightful, clarion voice. Both self-edited their first music videos using clips from old movies, and both offer challenging studies on the topic of feminine subjectivity.
But where Lana Del Rey’s exploration of femininity employs an old-Hollywood aesthetic informed by jaded passivity, cynical materialism, and pillow-soft nihilism, Dollanganger explores a related but far darker corner of the feminine. Her lyrical imagery is preoccupied with masochism, decay, and school shootings.
The most shocking thing on her bandcamp is a 2013 recording called Columbine EP. It features perhaps the most provocative album cover I’ve ever seen: a photo of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold lying dead from self-inflicted gunshot wounds (at least I think so, and don’t really have the stomach for the necessary due diligence). The brief recording contains three covers of songs heavily associated with school shootings.
The first two are Marilyn Manson songs: “The Nobodies”, Manson’s thinly-veiled deconstruction of the popular media’s response to Columbine, and “The Reflecting God,” perhaps the best song off his best album Antichrist Superstar (featuring lyrics like “When I’m God, everyone dies”). The third is Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” a song banned from several radio stations following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Even more controversial is a track on her most recent release Observatory Mansions. On “Rampage,” Dollanganger sings of “black combat boots pacing in through the school building” and a “gun-slinger, black duster” who is going to “fight the good fight, the noble war.”
The imagery is fairly unambiguous and powerful; she even samples Eric Harris’s voice on the track. She’s explained,
“I sampled Eric Harris because there’s this big fandom of teenage girls on Tumblr who idolize him and Dylan Klebold because they think that the two of them were just lonely and that their love could have helped prevent the shootings.”
She says that she doesn’t personally subscribe to that theory, and it’s clear that her real concern is mostly in showing it to us. Whether we’d like to think about it or not, “Rampage” demands our attention.
Further, she thinks the impulse to be attracted to violence might be part of a broader phenomenon: “I felt like that was how I often felt in relationships – you want to believe that a violent person won’t hurt you because they love you.” The chorus confirms the futility of this notion in the saddest way: “My baby has a baby, but it’s not me/It’s an AK-47 semi-automatic gun, and he loves her more than he loves me.”
On another track, “Creek Blues”, she similarly laments:
leaving things to die in the mud at the creek
pumping shotgun slugs out into the trees
you run your fingers on the wood and feel its bullet holes
it gives you something i could never give you or ever really know
Here, Dollanganger’s work seems to be a sad meditation not on the redemptive power of love, but its limits. Whether love necessarily acts in opposition to violence, or whether there’s something violent in the act of love itself, is left an open question.
But Dollanganger is no cynic. My favorite work from her comes from Ode to Dawn Wiener: Embarrassing Love Songs, an incredibly sweet and warmhearted collection of love songs. On “True Love Café” and “Sweet Girl,” he coos legitimately pornographic lyrics without even the slightest sense of irony or shame. Elsewhere, she thinks about the split between the body’s essential materiality and our emotional intangibility. On “Please Eat,” she sings, “It’s not your body that I need, but that’s what sleeps next to me,” and “Ugly” is a touching song about body positivity.
On this record and others, Dollanganger excels as a thoughtful, emotional lyricist. Her words mix morbidity and tenderness in way that feels so intimate it’s terrifying. The innocence in her voice can make for an attractive and heartbreaking listen. But her music is always thought-provoking, pretty, and sensitive.
Her new album Natural Born Losers is out October 9, through Eerie Organization.
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