Nico – The Marble Index review

Secret Meeting score: 78

by Philip Moss

As arguably the greatest auteur in contemporary cinema, Wes Anderson has not only perfected the tweeisms of his stunning visuals, but also clearly has an ear for pairing the right song to create the perfect cinematic moments. This has been a characteristic across his entire body of work, but, immediately, two examples from The Royal Tenenbaums come to mind – Elliott Smith’s Needle in the Hay (when – spoiler alert – Ritchie’s beard trim becomes an attempted suicide), & Nico’s These Days (as Margot meets Ritchie at the pier).

And it’s probably the Chelsea Girl album, which These Days is taken from – or, indeed, her moments of genius on The Velvet Underground & Nico – that Nico is perhaps best commercially known. But beyond her more ‘popular’ works, is a whole body of avant garde based compositions. One of which is The Marble Index.

Coming just thirteen months after the chamber folk opus, Chelsea Girls, Nico released The Marble Index – its title inspired by Wordsworth’s epic poem, The Prelude – in November 1968 through Elektra Records. Unhappy with her ‘playgirl’ image, Nico felt that the record, which was a much more challenging proposition, would position her as serious musician.

The 50 seconds of Prelude that open the record are in some ways a false start. Its glistening xylophones, which bounce over stately piano chords offering more light than what is to follow.

Lawns of Dawns, however, very much sets the tone for the record. Rumoured to have been guided towards the instrument by Leonard Cohen, a warbling harmonium, which provides an almost ever present drone across the record, underpins a lyric inspired by Nico’s acid trips with Jim Morrison – ‘Dawn, your guise has filled my nights with fear/ At each closing of my eyes/ You never see these pictures in my mind… I cannot understand the way I feel/ Until I rest on lawns of dawns— Can you follow me?’ Nico’s undeniably stunning voice is unmistakable, but the melodic phrasings are long and drawn out, and are a marked difference to anything else that she had produced up to this point in her career.

Despite writing the album herself, over just four days in the studio, The Velvet Underground’s John Cale contributed towards the record’s arrangements – and this is no more evident that in the stunning orchestral flourishes of No One is There, and evokes Paul Giovanni’s score for The Wicker Man, which incidentally followed five years later. The song’s typically ambiguous lyrics, which are said to be have influenced by Richard Nixon, paired with a medieval melody, bring a brooding macabre – ‘Some are calling him mad, no one is there/ Across from behind your window screen, demon is dancing down the scene, in a crucial parody’ – and when paired with Guy Webster’s stunning cover image, have ensured that the record has been adopted by fans of the gothic genre.

It’s been noted since that Scott Walker’s trilogy of borderline unlistenable epics – Tilt (1995), The Drift (2006) and Bish Bosch (2012) – are in huge debt to The Marble Index. But the fact that Nico’s works were imagined almost three decades before Walker’s foray into such classically based experimentations, at the age of just 30, shows just how groundbreaking this record was in the late sixties, and how poles apart it would have been to its contemporaries. And it’s the A-side’s final two cuts that are perhaps most similar to Walker’s work. Ari’s Song opens with layered, piercing whistles, before her twisted harmonium drives the song into the most avant-garde piece of music on the record. While its erratic conclusion, Facing The Wind, is the most percussive track on the record, and the first time that we find Nico’s voice buried beneath the cacophony.

Opening the B-side, Julius Caesar (Memento Hodié) is again uncompromising – the out of tune harmonium violently raging like an angry sea. Despite lacking the melody of Lou Reed’s writing, Frozen Warnings is perhaps most similar to her work on The Velvet Underground & Nico. With her hypnotic voice right at the front of the mix, its harsh, unabating melodies are backed predominantly by Cale’s violas and a pipe organ. Before the album comes to its conclusion with Evening of Light – the most frighteningly, aggressive piece of music found across the album’s eight tracks.

Genre breaking music does not always necessarily make for a great listen, and The Marble Index is certainly not easy on the ears. “It is unrelenting… in places, it’s ferocious,” Cale told Uncut in 2015. But given time, its challenges will offer their rewards. And if Wes Anderson were ever to venture into the horror genre, there are plenty of options here for the perfect soundtrack.

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