It is one of the most entrenched visions in the rock critic's vocabulary; Nico as doomed valkyrie, droning death-like through a harsh gothic monotone, a drained beauty pumping dirges from her harmonium while a voice as old as dirt hangs cobwebs round the chords. In fact she only made one album which remotely fit that bill -- this one -- and it's a symbol of its significance that even the cliché emerges as a thing of stunning beauty. Her first album following three years of rumor and speculation, The End was consciously designed to highlight the Nico of already pertinent myth. Stark, dark, bare, and frightening, the harmonium dominant even amid the splendor of Eno's synthesized menace, John Cale's childlike piano, and Phil Manzanera's scratchy, effects-whipped guitar, it is the howling wind upon wuthering heights, deathless secrets in airless dungeons, ancient mysteries in the guise of modern icons. Live, Nico took to dedicating the final cut, a sparse but heartstoppingly beautiful interpretation of the former German national anthem, to terrorist Andreas Baader, even as the song itself conjured demons of its own from an impressionable Anglo-American audience. Nico later admitted she intended the performance in the same spirit as Jimi Hendrix rendered "Star Spangled Banner." But "Das Lied der Deutschen" -- "Deutschland Uber Alles" -- has connotations which neither tribute nor parody could ever undermine. It is only in the '90s that even Germany has reclaimed the anthem for its own. In 1974, it was positively leperous. Listen without prejudice, though, and you catch Nico's meaning regardless, even as her voice tiptoes on the edge of childlike, all but duetting with the little girl she once was, on a song which she'd been singing since the cradle. The ghosts pack in. Former lover Jim Morrison haunts the stately "You Forgot to Answer," a song written about the last time Nico saw him, in a hired limousine on the day of his death; of course he reappears in the title track, an epic recounting of the Doors' own "The End," but blacker than even they envisioned it, an echoing maze of torchlit corridors and spectral children, and so intense that, by the time Nico reaches the "mother...father" passage, she is too weary even to scream. The cracked groan which emerges instead is all the more chilling for its understatement, and the musicians were as affected as the listener. The mutant funk coda with which the performance concludes is more than an incongruous bridge. It is the sound of the universe cracking under the pressure. But to dwell on the fear is to overlook the beauty -- The End, first and foremost, is an album of intimate simplicity and deceptive depths. Nico's voice stuns, soaring and swooping into unimagined corners. No less than "Das Lied der Deutschen," both "Valley of the Kings" and "It Has Not Taken Long" make a mockery of the lazy critical complaints that she simply grumbled along in a one-note wail, while the arrangements (most of which were Nico's own; producer Cale admits he spent most of his time in the studio simply marveling) utterly rewrote even the most generous interpretation of what "rock music" should sound like. The End doesn't simply subvert categorization. It defies time itself.
AllMusic Review by Dave Thompson
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2