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. But it certainly skirts those lines: it’s airy enough to fit in there, light enough to sound innocent on first pass. That lightness is the most important thing about it, allowing Dollanganger to craft high-pitched hazes where textures, not lyrics, can drive the mood. But that’s where it takes a sharp stylistic turn: as the album’s cover implies, these songs take that airy palette and twist it in ways more gruesome than playful. The result is an uncomfortable mix, where textures and lyrics combine to create a deliberately jarring experience that rarely feels quite right – and when it does, it’s unsettling rather than relaxing.
That central conceit – pleasant sonics paired with grim lyrics – is nothing new. OutKast famously did it with “Hey Ya!,” going so far as to acknowledge the unsavory relationship between performer and audience; Bruce Springsteen’s critique of the Vietnam War has become a campaign-stop staple; and the Beatles put a jaunty ode to a serial killer on Abbey Road. But this isn’t Dollanganger’s attempt to slot herself into that canon. Instead, her sights are set on a more straightforward one, one where melodies serve to accentuate lyrical content and reveal open wounds rather than cover them up with musical sleight-of-hand.
Given the content on display, though, that may not have been necessary: between love songs to drug addicts, second-hand retellings of the Columbine massacre, and lines that equate purging with orgasms, the lyrics here would be tough to ignore even given concerted effort. And sometimes, that works to their benefit: “Creek Blues” serves as an early standout for how unfiltered and genuine Dollanganger seems while retaining lyrical specificity, painting a picture rather than finding a photograph; “Sleepy Towns and Cemeteries” probes for the record’s core when she sings that “beautiful things can come from something ugly;” “Choking Games,” meanwhile, finds turns of phrase equal parts cryptic and specific, meaningless and meaningful: “Sell your sister’s body to the man next door / Mix a batch and hit it, puke all over the floor.”
The main danger with this sort of lyricism is that the well quickly dries up if the vocalist isn’t careful – “dark” lyrics tend to toe a line between honest and aimlessly antagonistic. And Dollanganger doesn’t always land on the right side: many lines here are painfully on-the-nose, with entire songs descending into seemingly-disingenuous melodrama. “Rampage” fails to say anything new or meaningful about love or guns or death; “Angels of Porn” gets lost in its subject matter, wandering and only rarely finding anything significant; “Please Just Stay Dead” comes off as a tired retread of moods, if not subjects, from earlier in the release.
Fortunately, the instrumentation throughout keeps the album from feeling like too much of a wash. It all conforms to a certain mood, a despondent haze that often sets the tone before Dollanganger says a word – but, impressively, does so without repeating itself too much. It’s got just enough variance to keep it worth tuning in to – note the organ and Marissa Nadler-esque harmonies that quietly join the opening track, or the distant drumming and lonely piano on “Rampage,” or the reverberating guitar and pitched-down accompaniment on “Choking Games.” The sonics here walk the tightrope between coherency and boredom with impressive finesse, making even the worst songs worth hearing for their textures and melodies. Parts of it are even beautiful: the cloudy harmonies on the final track offer the most soothing texture here, making its abrupt ending all the more shocking. It’s Dollanganger that ties all these ideas together, with her lightweight vocals floating over the nine tracks here and, for better or worse, making them feel like one. She rarely breaks form, and when she does, it’s either startling (the sheer volume on “Angels of Porn”) or revelatory (the higher notes of “Please Just Stay Dead”) or both (the back half of “Choking Games”).
That consistency ultimately results in a record that would come off as overbearing or single-minded if it weren’t for its thirty-minute runtime. And that’s understandable. Even on a record this short, this much dreary lyricism and instrumentation starts to feel oppressive. But there’s something to be said for that: even if several songs here 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 – far from it – its sincerity shines through on the best tracks here, and it can turn ugly things into beautiful ones.
On its final track, Observatory Mansions offers something rare for its universe: hope. After thirty minutes of drugs and misery and degradation, death – another of the clouds looming above – is framed as “a beginning, not an end.” Maybe she’s talking about the death of a loved one; maybe it’s a love that’s fallen apart; maybe it’s her pets or friends or hope. Maybe she’s wishing for it. But, for a moment, that doesn’t matter; Dollanganger takes respite in the mystery and doesn’t offer an answer. She spent eight tracks watching things fall apart but ultimately doesn’t know how to fix any of it – maybe, instead, the answer is to embrace the dread and desperation and find whatever beauty she can.
FCC: 2, 5, 6
Recommended if you like: Marissa Nadler, Grouper
Favorite Tracks: 3, 5, 9