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Nicole Dollanganger seizes our breath on Married In Mount Airy

"Married In Mount Airy"

Release date: 06 January 2023
Nicole dollanganger married art
20 January 2023, 00:00 Written by Kyle Kohner

The word "juxtaposition" is often associated with the music of Nicole Dollanganger – perhaps too often – to the point that any discussions regarding her art have become monotonous.

However, her work is everything but; it's full of death, life, pain, and ecstasy. It's complex and has become more so with every record.

The truth is, Dollanganger has evolved, and is no longer attempting to balance light and dark as two polarizing forces. On Married In Mount Airy, her first record in five years, she's decided to, instead, polymerize them as one.

On MIMA, Dollanganger holds light – musical sparseness and her ethereal voice – in the same gentle but firmly-clenched hand that clutches harrowing, traumatic thoughts and feelings. The first few tracks are laden with the blissful romanticisation of a lover, devoted in marriage. She seems even intoxicated by this person, singing on the sprawling title track, "he tasted of Sherry / Contrary to the maraschino cherries / With our own colour TV / Heavenly shag carpeting / A world apart from the ordinary / Something in the air".

But the romantic air of these same songs, after they've faded, becomes quickly poisoned by clear Stockholm Syndrome as listeners reach the record's midpoint. “I wish he didn't have to die,” Dollanganger conflictingly laments on "Bad Man", “But he was a bad man”. Suddenly, this godlike figure beheld so beloved begins to morph into an abusive, drunken monster whose only prerogative is to entrap and control.

During the devastating run between "Bad Man" and "Moonlite", Dollanganger paints a crushing portrait of this horrific transformation. On the latter, she even sings, through the track’s glistening elegance and sway, from this abuser's gnarled point of view: "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".

From Todd Solondz's mocked and ashamed Dawn Wiener to the rejected and heartbroken Elephant Man, Dollanganger has always had a way with transporting her listeners through the eyes of her subject. "Moonlite" is such a case. While it does not ask of empathy from her listeners, this moment, which peers at innocence with gruesome intentions, may be her most impressive show of vicariousness yet. It's a terrifying display, and one that simply breaks your heart for Dollanganger or, at least, the character on display.

As we move through Married In Mount Airy, from lust and adoration to revelation of abuse and toxicity, the album becomes oddly cathartic – freedom is found as the truth of this relationship, though horrifying, is revealed to both listeners and our protagonist. After all, what is darkness without a little bit of light? There is honest relatability to this progression, and as a result, listeners can now finally relent themselves, entirely, to her soul-crushing vignettes.

Initially, the jarring disparity between words and sound may feel more present than ever with songs like "Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus" and album closer, "I'll Wait For You To Call", but they come crashing together with further listening. On "Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus", specifically, death is made uncomfortably one with the endearing innocence of Dollanganger's vocal fragility while she sings of a poison – this partner – she had been drinking of for sustenance for far too long, over glistening synths and orchestral embellishes, no less.

In the past, such songs would have rested within the daintiness of sparse guitar plucks or delicate piano, but MIMA is comprised of full-bodied arrangements that, with help from producer Matthew Tomasi, provide heft and texture to Dollanganger's brooding heartache. By leaning heavily into baroque pop enormity and textural nuance throughout her new record, such vastness permits these tonal opposites to cohabit in the same space as if they could not exist without the other. Darkness is the absence of light; let's not forget.

On MIMA, Dollanganger’s music still resembles the act of placing a decorative bow upon a decapitated head left to rot, as if that would bring it back to life. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t clear artistic evolution to glean. You could easily envision her singing "When you're dead and buried / With a smile painted on your face / Your eulogy, like poetry / Flowers overwhelming the wake" from "Whispering Glades" over one of her sparse guitar compositions of old. However, this time around it’s dressed with complexity and decorated with an ornate finish while still preserving her identifiable draw and effect – shocking those who will listen with embattled discomfort through corrupted innocence.

It's mind-boggling such an unnerving collection of tracks can have your skin crawling before throwing an emotional gut punch. But Dollanganger has always managed to provide sadness in walloping blows, triggering even – this just might be her largest serving yet. Hearing her angelic, high-pitch-ed hymns rise from her chest is an oddly devastating experience, but made ever the more tear-jerking and a bit disturbing in context of such terrifying storytelling. These two extremes shouldn't work on paper, but they do more than ever on her latest – not as some juxtaposed phenomenon, but as a realization that death and life, light and dark, and innocence and corruption necessitate the existence of another. This is the power of Dollanganger's music and the beauty of the heart-torn-from-chest, Married In Mount Airy.

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