BELLA UNION RECORDS 2nd September, 2016
Confession: I’d listen to Patti Smith reading her shopping list. Despite having recorded incandescent whirlings of Rimbaud-esque passion-poetry in the seventies and still regularly channelling the muse, her last book was more or less the tale of her buying a house. Thankfully, here, she’s not the boss, and her chief contribution is her voice schooled in poetry.
This is a great concept – an album based on Nico, that doesn’t attempt cover versions as we know them, nor approach narrative. The whole thing is about feel and atmosphere and is quite an eerie album. The music is far more atmosphere than structure, based on field recordings from Ibiza, bees, wind, all sorts, and unusual percussion, backing Patti’s voice. The story goes that Patti’s daughter, Jesse Paris Smith, bumped into Soundwalk Collective’s leader on a plane and a project was mooted: Why not work something up around the last day of Nico? Which they did, drafting in Jesse’s mum to provide the unmistakeable voice. Now, my abiding memory of Nico is not the over-rated Velvets’ first album, it is an old recording of Janitor Of Lunacy taped from a John Peel session – the accordion intense and over-powering, the voice almost grating. I was drawn back over and over. This bears no resemblance – and that is an achievement.
Nico died on a bicycle in Ibiza, lying by the roadside for a day before being found, treated and finally dying. What went through her mind as she lay? This explores Nico through a vision of that last day and interpretations of her lyrics, recited by Patti Smith. Nico has had many tributes before (sample Throbbing Gristle’s all-star reworking of Desert Shore) but this is the truest in spirit. Sounds and clicks float and provide filmic atmosphere to the lyrics. At one point, Smith is carried away into singing and the effect is powerful, accompanied by the sound of an accordion. Nico’s accordion. The one Smith rescued from pawn in the seventies (Nico had a heavy drug habit for some time, shacked up with John Cooper Clarke in Manchester). As the album’s shadow lengthens, the spell deepens and the seventh track, “I Will Be Seven (when we meet in heaven)” is the last song Nico wrote, full of catchy phrases. This, and a few latter tracks are live (not that you can hear an audience) but provide that spark that sees Patti in ruminatory mode, poetising and free-associating before the spectral leave-taking, the prayer, of My Only Child.
This is amazingly atmospheric and a magical interaction between artists – something quite different to what any of them would have done on their own. Try, in particular the penultimate three tracks, live and full of uncanny mesmerism.