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Nicole Dollanganger - Heart Shaped Bed Music Album Reviews

No matter how much effort Dollanganger injects into her morose sixth album, little on here manages to dig past the surface.

Nicole Dollanganger doesn’t aim to romanticize melancholy, but her music can’t escape it. In 2012, the Canadian singer (born Nicole Bell) uploaded her first record to Tumblr and Bandcamp while recovering from a serious illness. She quickly gained a cult following for her doubly depressive and suggestive-lollipop acoustic songs, which appeared on records with campy titles like Ode to Dawn Wiener: Embarrassing Love Songs. Supposedly, Grimes heard one such song and formed Eerie Organization, a label specifically to release Dollanganger’s fifth record, 2015’s Natural Born Losers. Dollanganger remains the label’s only signee.

On Natural Born Losers, Dollanganger fancied herself a sadistic naif who hunted angels with her father’s rifle, carved a lover’s name into her leg, and suffered endlessly from an assortment of cruelties. It could be an uncomfortable listen, but its explicit depictions of female sexuality subverted the notion that vulgar desire is shameful. Delivered with breathy ennui over hushed, barren instrumentation, Dollanganger made her horrors feel inescapable; violence, she seemed to say, is inherent in romance.

There’s still plenty of guns and blood on her follow-up, Heart Shaped Bed, but Dollanganger has traded backwoods horror for a more chilled romance. She dreams of honeymooning at a seedy Poconos hotel, gives a lap dance in a“backyard full of dying flowers,” and imagines herself as a silent movie starlet. Though there’s less masochism, pleasure remains a means of reclaiming power. On the title track, she asks a lover to help “Make something gross feel romantic/Make me so no one will ever want me again.” But no matter how much effort Dollanganger injects into her morose yearnings, little on Heart Shaped Bed manages to dig past the surface.

It opens with “Uncle,” an incest fantasy inspired by a short story called “I Slept With My Uncle On My Wedding Night” by gothic horror novelist V.C. Andrews (from whom she also borrowed her stage surname). Over a spindly piano melody, Dollanganger submits to this forbidden, and honestly nauseating, romance. Though less disturbing, “Lemonade” follows a similar course. As a housewife whose husband is having an affair, Dollanganger’s narrator decides to quench her own carnal thirst. “Take you upstairs to the swan bed/Let you fuck me hard as you can,” she murmurs impassively over the arrythmia of a lobotomized drum machine. The foggy-dawn-in-the-graveyard production only enhances the sluggishness of the songs, muddling Dollanganger’s lyrics into shapeless murmurs. Even when they’re describing moments of ecstasy, the first five songs on Heart Shaped Bed can’t seem to escape their lethargy.

Side B is immediately more varied and compelling, even if the results are mixed. “Snake” overhauls the gothic monotony with a wash of whispers and static noise. She channels a sadistic bruiser on the ominous “Beautiful & Bad,” promising to punish those who cross her (“And the next time you hit, I hit back/Do you hear me, mother fucker?/Can you dig that?”) before diving into a digital abyss that sounds like a flurry of bats being drowned in a deep fryer. But then “Chapel” returns to the fantasy wedding of the first title track, and the glitchy background sparkles and booming drums prevent Dollanganger’s dreams from hitting home once again.

On Heart Shaped Bed, Dollanganger is too veiled behind the gloom to be accessible. When Heart Shaped Bed closes with “Lacrymaria Olor,” Dollanganger emits a pitch-shifted cry. Even though it is distorted beyond recognition, it is the record’s first real articulation of life. As on Natural Born Losers, Dollanganger’s apathy never wavers, whether she is embodying a self-described “crazy bitch” (“Tammy Faye”) or a devout bride (“Chapel”). Nor should it have to; disaffection can speak wonders for itself. But if the content behind the distance isn’t poignant, the message is moot.

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