When I uploaded the rather nicely packaged, all-in-one, brand new reissue of Nico’s seminal albums, “The Marble Index”, and “Desertshore”, into my iTunes, I noticed that in the genre section it had registered as “unclassifiable“. iTunes has a habit of getting the genre identification thing a tad wrong from time to time, but in this case I thought it was rather spot on selecting a very appropriate way in which to term a body of work that to this day still exists entirely within its own uniquely alien space, almost incomparable to anything else. Misunderstood for the majority of her creative life as the pretty face Warhol installed into an unimpressed The Velvet Underground, Nico’s work has only been re-evaluated on its own terms over the last few years and rightly so. Her debut solo effort “Chelsea Girls”, awash in ornate string sections, was a beautifully baroque folk album that Nico herself came to hate, claiming it didn’t reflect the person she really was. The follow-up “The Marble Index” was effectively her coming out, and frankly it wasn’t pretty. Tired of being a figure of fantasy, the front cover photograph of a dark haired, defiant looking Nico with chapped lips and a hollowed out face indicated something of a sea change had taken place before a single note of music even needed to be heard. It was detectable that the rot of Nico’s life had begun to set in.
Dangerous records exist. I don’t mean records that leave people with the desire to kill a few virgins just cause they happened to play them backwards. I’m thinking of records that if you’re not careful of, you can fall into. “The Marble Index” is one of those dangerous records you should be cautious to overindulge in. So dense, so dark, so hypnotic, it’s not possible to merely listen. Instead, the music envelopes itself relentlessly, like an unstoppable and impenetrable fog. With a harmonium and that famously commanding high priestess voice at her disposal, Nico evoked a magical world immersed in paganism that could only emanate out of the witchy traditions of Old Europe. John Cale was on hand to conjure up a storm of viola and death bells around a woman who was placed firmly within the eye, sounding like someone lost inside themselves. Knowing how Nico’s doomed story progressed throughout the 7O’s and into the 8O’s culminating in her untimely death, its hard not to hear in “The Marble Index” possibly the beginning of the end of something, but as with most things in life, thats probably too simple an assessment to make, and maybe even an insult to the genius at work here.
Nico would never again manage to capture the same intensity she accomplished with “The Marble Index”, but follow-up “Desertshore” had some amazing moments all the same, ‘Janitor of Lunacy’ the definite standout. Far less doom laden, it’s certainly an easier, if less compelling, record to listen to, only ever gripping when “The Marble Index” often choked. The truth is it would have been impossible for her to have made another album like “The Marble Index”, something illuminated by the fact that no one has ever managed to make anything vaguely similar to it since. In a strange way, no matter how much I appreciate and value Nico’s masterpiece, hearing the sound of someone lose themselves in such a dark and hopeless place, I can only hope no one ever does make another record like Marble Index for the sake of their own well-being. Unclassifiable indeed.