Nicole Dollanganger - Married in Mount Airy (self released)

Nicole Dollanganger – Married in Mount Airy (self released)

It’s so easy to become obsessed with Nicole Dollanganger‘s music. Her voice, like an old chalk doll – childlike, fragile and in some contexts scary as hell – pulls you into her world with every breath. It’s a place of pain and darkness, shattered glimpses into the real life suffering we inflict on others and on ourselves. But, as her seventh album, Married in Mount Airy shows, even in the bleakest moments, in spite of the inevitable finality of it all, there is love.

Canadian songwriter Dollanganger (real name Nicole Bell) takes her stage-name and aesthetic from the family at the centre of V.C. AndrewsFlowers In The Attic novels. Like the books, there is a thread of terror running throughout the otherwise beautiful arrangements in her songs, where she juxtaposes the pungency of evil and innocent sweetness. Having built an almost cult following online through self-released albums and EPs in the 2010’s, her breakthrough album Natural Born Losers (2015) on Grimes‘ Eerie Organization label drew wider media interest. Natural Born Losers is a compelling, but troubling listen with themes of domestic abuse, BDSM, rape and kidnap. Dollanganger added flourishes of romanticism on Heart Shaped Bed (2018), which also reversed the male dominating dynamic of the previous album. Songs like ‘Tammy Faye’ and ‘Chapel’ (which featured on The Walking Dead) have female characters who, while victims in different ways, become somehow stronger, elevated through the telling of their stories.

So, what of the long awaited next chapter, Married in Mount Airy? This self-released album sees Dollanganger working again with Matthew Tomasi and was kept secret under the project name ‘MIMA‘, with fleeting teasers posted on Dollanganger’s socials. Its opening, titular track is a reference to Mount Airy Lodge, in the Pocano Mountains, Pennsylvania, a once luxurious multi-million dollar resort that fell into ruin in the 1990s. It’s a place that Dollanganger has alluded to before in songs and on her Instagram: a trope of decadence turned into decay, where promises crumble into dust. Dollanganger’s voice is echoed and pitch-shifted as a drunken guitar spins us around in a delirious stumble through the memories of a honeymoon, and a relationship foreshadowed by the venue’s demise.

“Don’t recall what we were drinking but/I remember thinking
There was something very strange in the air”

As an introduction to this new collection of songs, ‘Married in Mount Airy‘ sets the tone, giving us the familiar Dollanganger creepiness, but the shock factor gives way to a slow-burning, intense sadness that cuts much deeper.

Dollanganger’s simple, yet vivid lyrics bring whole worlds momentarily into existence. The slowly unravelling ‘Gold Satin Dreamer’ and its later counterpoint track ‘Runnin’ Free’, tell two different stories of abuse, isolation and lost dreams. We see their tragedy indirectly, revealed through the ordinary objects and sounds around a remote trailer park.

“I can smell the blood purged from raw steak/By the barbecue on a summer day”

“All of those dreams left out in the sun/They run like syrup and clot like blood”

“I stay here alone inside/With the Sunday dinner and the summertime flies”

“Sad teddy bears on the lawn outside/Clean off the mud, hang them up out to dry”

There is also a sense that Dollanganger cares more for the characters she conjures on MIMA, or that there is closer connection than before. Each song is carefully crafted, placing its protagonists in sympathy with the listener, even when their intentions are confused or harmful. She explores the murkiness of what it means to be victim, or abuser and the thin membrane of fortune and perspective that divides the two. Throughout MIMA Dollanganger walks carefully across the tense wire between true love, obsession and controlling behaviour. ‘My Darling True’ sacrifices its body and soul to an abusive partner in the name of love, building to a climax mixing subtle saxophone and synth pads with crashing, weeping guitars. The rawness of plucked acoustic guitar strings feel like garottes around the heart on ‘Bad Man’ , as enduring love is like phantom limb pain, but at least this time the survivor gets to tell the story: “Wrote over the love story he left on my body/With somebody else’s hands/ I’m still crying, but I’m not sorry”. Elsewhere, the eerily tender ‘Sometime After Midnight’ spends some time with a girl in her room, preparing to go out on a late night tryst. As the story unfolds, so do our doubts that she will return home.

While there are moments on MIMA where it perhaps loses its way a little – ‘Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus’, wanders ghostly, with Dollanganger’s vocals swallowed up by the mix – when her voice is put front-and-centre, the stories have impact and nuance. For example, ‘Dogwood’ stands out as a bright, pure expression of defiant love. Its simple acoustic guitar and gentle vocals are laid bare, pouring their devotion into the last moments between a couple, as a man is in the grip of an overdose. Later, ‘Moonlite’ recalls a conversation with a drunken ex in a cocktail of passion and cruelty.

“ “I wanna hold you in my hands/Like a porcelain decanter
Take off the lid and fill you up with liquor/ Smash you against the wall and let you fall
To pieces in my hands” He said”

Closer listening reveals an implied emptiness and impotence in the man’s threats. It almost takes us back to the relationship between the figure skater and weightlifter in ‘American Tradition’ (Natural Born Losers). But the power is now with the female lead, as he’s left washed up and broken.

Dollanganger’s albums sometimes include songs developed from previous releases, settling them into new contexts and with new arrangements. The now epic pop of ‘Runnin’ Free’ started as a demo on Heart Shaped Bed demos, b-sides, and ‘Whispering Glades’ was released in 2021. Its inclusion as the penultimate track on MIMA gives us fresh insights into the themes on the album. Like Evelyn Waugh‘s Dennis Barlow character in The Loved One, the central male figure in ‘Whispering Glades’ is a liar, plagiarist and, here, is implicated in murder. In Dollanganger’s retelling, this serial seducer is imagined laid out at his own wake, possibly seen through the eyes of Aimee Thanatogenos (Barlow’s object of manipulation in Waugh’s novel). Her revenge for all those he has abused is sung sweetly like a scalpel carving a smile.

Married in Mount Airy ends abruptly, perhaps intentionally, with a lingering lack of closure. ‘I’ll Wait For You To Call’ is a breathy promise, which seeps away into the same drunken guitar refrain that opened the album. We circle back to the start, to do it all again. Looking for more clues and answers behind the question ‘what if…?’ which Dollanganger asks on all of her songs. What if we could see through the eyes of a victim? What if we could understand what makes us hurt others? What if love could last forever?

‘Married in Mount Airy’ is out now.


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