The first thing that stands out on Observatory Mansions is Nicole Dollanganger’s voice. It’s not childlike, exactly; it’s too self-assured for that. She turns 30 soon* but it certainly skirts those lines, swooning and coddling while light enough to sound innocent on first pass, carrying faintly over the top, lingering as the former anorexia sufferer pleads, “Heal me up again”.
That lightness is the most important thing about it, allowing Dollanganger to craft high-pitched hazes over wary synth lines, the occasional forlorn guitar, and the thrash and clang of distant percussion where textures, not lyrics, can drive the mood.
Recorded in her bedroom and bathroom, 2014’s Observatory Mansions is also the title of the Canadian artist’s third album.
It’s a haunting and captivating body of work, flinty but glimmering dimly with the stagnant glow of nowhere to go on a golden evening, managing to find beauty and delicacy in the materiality of life.
Her lyrics are archly observed, wistful, witty, and rooted in a keen sense of place, from “sleepy towns and cemeteries”, littered streets, dilapidated apartments and dreary daytime television.
Even on a record this short, this much Morrissey-esque lyricism could start to feel oppressive, but there’s something to be said for that: even if several songs aren’t pleasant in a traditional sense – Angels Of Porn, for example, certainly isn’t fun to listen to – they often feel like something Dollanganger had to write.
Even if the record isn’t perfect, its sincerity shines through on the best tracks, and can turn ugly things into beautiful ones, wringing out elegies in the form of laments for the living dead which simultaneously evoke her Ontario hometown and seems capable of resuscitating the past to move thinly in the present.
*As if one wasn’t subject to constant reminders of mortality in the last year or so already, Nicole Dollanganger was born in September 1991, the same week David Bowie’s pretend rock band album Tin Machine II was released. Ouch.