Nicole Dollanganger’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Nicole Dollanganger is a horror artist who traffics in a personal, atypical type of horror. There are no supernatural forces in Dollanganger’s songs, no masked men waiting to pounce on conspicuously attractive teenagers. Instead, she finds horror in the fucked up things people do to each other, and it’s all the more disturbing for its realism. Musically too, Dollanganger shies away from standard horror tropes. Her music is hushed and spacious rather than dissonant and claustrophobic. Her voice rarely rises above a whisper. Nicole Dollanganger’s music is exceedingly intimate, which only serves to amplify her tales of violence and oppressive sadness.
The only constant in Nicole Dollanganger’s world is that people hurt each other, and she’s spent the past four years exploring all the different ways in which that hurt can manifest. “Coma Baby,” the first song on her first album (2012’s excellent Curdled Milk) tells the story of a braindead child, uselessly rotting away despite his life having ostensibly been saved by the doctors. “Dog Teeth” (also from Curdled Milk) imagines a serial abuser as a feral dog, ripe with body horror and coated in a discomforting air of hopelessness. The protagonist of “Dog Teeth” commits acts of violence as a way to force other people to empathize with him (“he’d hollowed out their bodies/so they’d feel just empty as him”). That’s an almost sympathetic notion, and it’s a testament to Dollanganger’s strength as a lyricist that she was able to take something so potentially problematic and turn it into something viscerally and psychologically upsetting. Dollanganger’s lyrics operate on an uncomfortably intimate basis, casting the lives of everyday people as sadistic scenes in a neverending horror film.
However, the true genius of Nicole Dollanganger’s music lies in exactly how she presents her tales of Gothic Americana. The closest comparison I can make is to Infinity Crush, a similarly understated, whisper quiet singer-songwriter with a disarmingly beautiful voice. Both Infinity Crush and Nicole Dollanganger build their songs around simple, melancholy guitar and piano sections. Both use the precious frailty of their voices to contrast with the dark themes of their lyrics. Both have mastered the art of lo-fi recording, their songs distorted enough to sound personal but still clear enough to capture their beauty. The end result of all of this is that both Infinity Crush’s and Nicole Dollanganger’s music sounds intimate above all else. Their songs have the feeling of listening to someone’s diary. But while Infinity Crush uses this intimacy to explore the heartbreaking minutiae of suburban depression, Nicole Dollanganger uses it to give her horrific imagery a personal punch. Take for example the song “Nebraska” off of Flowers of Flesh and Blood. The song begins and ends with murder, and the only musical accompaniment is a simple acoustic guitar passage. Dollanganger sings the song in the same whispered tone you would use to tell a friend your deepest fears. Nicole Dollanganger uses the intimacy of her music to put the listener directly into the minds of everyone involved in the cycle of violence. Her music forces you to experience the horror face to face, ensuring that the sickening feeling will linger long after the song ends.
What ultimately keeps drawing me back to Nicole Dollanganger’s music is how oddly beautiful it can be. Her voice is truly striking, she would sound just as at home singing Sarah McLachlan-style weepies as she does singing about rape and murder. She has an exceptional talent for poetic melancholy imagery, most clearly demonstrated on recent single “Chapel.” Possibly her strongest song to date, “Chapel” presents an ominous wedding day vision, one that feels more funereal than nuptial. “You know I don’t love anyone/But I love you” she sings over a cavernous acoustic guitar, and it’s equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. The beauty of her music informs the horror and vice versa. It’s a haunting and fascinating cycle that makes every song hit with the force of a train. A songwriter who can balance darkness and beauty in the way Dollanganger does is a rare gift, and I can’t wait to see where she goes next.