6th November 2023
Released in the same year as ‘the Velvet Underground and Nico’, the German singer perhaps does not get the credit she deserves on her 1967 effort. Alternative and experimental music types have, in the last half a century or so, often embarrassed themselves with the fetishization of the ‘God-given’ talent of Lou Reed. They seem to forget that without the impact of Nico on the group, The Velvet Underground wouldn’t have been a thing. More accessible and less challenging than the aforementioned album, ‘Chelsea Girl’ is a vividly beautiful piece of art. This is impressed on the listener not just through grandiose and lush instrumentation but through evocative lyrics from Nico.
Take the excellent opener ‘The Fairest Of The Seasons’. The opening lines perfectly introduce the dilemma that Nico or the narrator of the song is facing. In a dwindling relationship the person recognises things have gone as far as they can go and “the dreams have given all they have to lend”. Yet this notion of “do I stay or do I go” intertwined with this fear of “forgetting” incisively captures the difficulty of a relationship breaking down. Nico’s contrasting delivery manages to be both nonchalant and conversational, but also commanding and authoritative. Set to the back of regal sounding strings, the opener is a strong contender for being the most impressive song on the album.
The following track is the much covered ‘These Days’. Actually written by Jackson Browne in 1964, (Nico was the first to record the track) These Days is commonly recognised as the most well known song on Chelsea Girl. With peppy strings and a gentle fingerpicked guitar line (played by Browne), the song contains Nico’s best performance on the album. She effortlessly delivers lines that wouldn’t be out of place on a Dylan song, and whilst the tone of These Days is somewhat melancholy, the instrumentation contrasts this while and creates a truly charming spectacle.
Following two disconcerting and wonderfully experimental longer tracks, another highlight on the album is “I’ll Keep It With Mine”. A song given to her by Bob Dylan, Nico truly makes the track’s narrative her own. Dylan and Nico were travelling companions in the mid 1960s and this song chronicles a love hampered by these journeys. References to trains, “The train leaves at half past ten, but it’ll be back tomorrow the same time again” convey a powerful sense of isolation and inevitability that Nico’s wistful vocals mirror perfectly.
Although, it must be said that Nico did in fact hate the way this album turned out. Producer Tom Wilson added flutes and strings where Nico wanted guitars and drums. She lamented this decision in a 1981 interview – “I still cannot listen to [Chelsea Girl], because everything I wanted for that record, they took away”.
As heart-breaking as Nico’s apparent disdain for the album was, Chelsea Girl remains an influential classic. Its ability to transport the listener into Nico’s world of simultaneous despair and beauty is truly something to be marvelled at. As previously mentioned, Nico did not get the credit she deserves for her work and she did not live long enough to see this album achieve status as a classic. But thankfully we can listen now and appreciate how intimately gorgeous these songs are.
Listen here: https://open.spotify.com/album/6O62Cqi0YqOytEbFmeLyjU?si=KqlJMhPqRK-tUa5BF-j53A