Drama of Exile

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It was a shock at the time and today, the thrill still lingers. Almost 15 years after she quit the Velvet Underground, and with four stunningly stubborn solo albums under her belt, Nico was finally ready to return to rock & roll, with a conventional band and a clutch of great songs which proved that, whatever else she'd lost during a career spent on the bleakest fringe of the idiom, the arts of composition and interpretation were not part of it. As a member of the Velvets, she'd performed two songs, the stately "All Tomorrow's Parties" and the fragile "Femme Fatale." Now she added a third to her bow, a relentless "Waiting for the Man" which took its lead from composer Lou Reed's own recent revisions of the song but never lost sight of the trademark primitivism which gave it its original power -- that's not Maureen Tucker on drums, but close your eyes and it could be. Elsewhere, David Bowie's "Heroes" was given an almost militaristic going over, the chopping guitars, rolling drums, and a triumphant Davey Payne sax solo conspiring to prove that while Bowie had written about what he saw in Berlin, Nico sang of what she knew. It was stirring stuff and, again, all the more surprising for who was behind it. Nico reveled in the confusion. "It was really boring, all that quiet stuff," she said of her past albums and, as if to hammer home the point, ensured that even her most reflective moments now swam within a brittle swirl of new wave-inflected rock, and the traditional Eurasian influences which band members Philippe Quilichini and Mahammad Hadi added to Nico's own unique references. Across her own compositions, Drama of Exile explored the faces and places Nico witnessed during her own dramatic exile -- she had spent the first half of the 1970s in hiding, convinced that the Black Panthers had a contract out on her; she resurfaced and was then forced to retreat once again, after an interview quote was interpreted as espousing brutal racism. The haunting, almost Indian-sounding "Orly Flight," the rattled funk of "The Sphinx," and the droning/hypnotic "Purple Lips" all suggested adventures which never made the newspapers, while "One More Chance" made it obvious that she didn't regret one of them. Nor, once this album was assimilated by the world at large, would she ever need to.

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