Described as the “priestess of darkness,” Nico got her start as a golden-haired model from post-war Berlin. Her background would turn her into an “angel of evil” and one of the most innovative musicians of the 21st century. Nico’s presence on The Velvet Underground & Nico was supposed to represent peace against Lou Reed and John Cale’s manic improvisational filth, but the genius of her inclusion is that her voice is not representative of anything at all. It’s emotionally distant, reserved, and foreign not just to America, but to Earth. The peace conveyed by her voice is an uneasy one, and that would become her defining quality, as well as what she would use to perfect effect in her future music.
Following Nico’s generally pleasant but largely insignificant solo debut Chelsea Girl, she made an artistic one-eighty with The Marble Index. Percussion and traditional structure were stripped away, replaced almost entirely by a dissonant harmonium and Nico’s cold, alien voice. The Marble Index concerned itself not with relationships or personal troubles but with existential isolation, generational trauma, and the end of times. Nico became the minimalist, detached, neo-classical counterpoint to Jim Morrison, who she had a close relationship with.
The icy atmospheres of Marble Index become arid on Desertshore. Where Morrison’s The Doors was about a man’s futile attempt to climb above his humanity, Desertshore seems uninterested in mortal affairs. On The Marble Index, Nico was a stone face (literally, look at the cover), but on Desertshore she became a sphinx, looking over the chaotic desert of existence with unwavering authority. But the desert is only one facet of Desertshore; the album is a dichotomy, describing “where land and water meet” and exploring the relationship of beauty and horror much like The Velvet Underground & Nico did, but in a much more aloof way.
“The Falconer” is perhaps the best example of this, where a soulful piano section interjects between crashing church organs and looming walls of harmonium. This is followed by “My Only Child,” which ditches instruments entirely, and Nico’s vocal power drives the music with ease. Her lyrics center around authority and motherhood on top of mortality, apocalypse, fear of time, and a response to the darkness of the world. Nico constructs her own gods, systems, world using it to explore the landscapes (again, look at the cover) of societies and the human mind.
The indeterminate nature of Desertshore could easily be seen as its folly, but the lyrical and aesthetic mystery is what separated Nico from even her most experimental contemporaries. Nico was a pioneering contributor to the longstanding tradition of rock music being about transcending one’s humanity through music. Desertshore is the closest Nico ever got to omniscience, becoming larger than life better than anyone since. Rising to her status in the male-dominated avant-garde of the time is significant enough, but Nico’s limited competition as a leading musical visionary of the generation is what truly cements her place in the rock canon.