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Review: Nicole Dollanganger Decapitates America on ‘Natural Born Losers’

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: October 9, 2015
Label: Eerie Organization

Other dark singer-songwriters carry around the suggestion of hidden skeletons, but Nicole Dollanganger’s secreted away entire rotting corpses in her closet. Over nearly a half decade of recording under her own name, the Canadian talent has fixed her eye squarely on the morbid and the moribund, conjuring tales of surreal violence (both real and fantasized) and sexual kink from little more than an acoustic guitar and her own creaky voice. Like many of the guitar-toters who preceded her, Dollanganger’s brand of terror is also uniquely blue collar, a rootsiness in instrumentation and setting that has drawn immediate comparisons to the reigning monarch of disaffected, deathly Americana, Lana Del Rey. But aside from surface-level narcotism, the two really don’t have all that much in common — they’re on the same cross-country road trip, but in Badlands, Dollanganger would claim the role of a murderous Martin Sheen, with Del Rey the bored and confused Sissy Spacek.

So Dollanganger opens Natural Born Losers — her first album recorded in an actual studio — by bagging a few more bodies. “Poacher’s Pride” finds the songwriter stealing her dad’s firearms to shoot down and taxidermy an angel; the record doesn’t ever really let up from there. She crafts a beautifully broken ballad about BDSM (“Mean”), admits to hoarding all of the dead popular kids’ skulls (“You’re So Cool”), plays the knife game (“American Tradition”) and prepares a damned man to “meet [his] God” (“Executioner”)  — a sort of escapist ferocity that singer-songwriters rarely indulge. Music of the sparse and significant sort that Dollanganger plays is usually the realm of abject confessionals or 101-level philosophizing, but she writes her songs like Southern Gothics, or Polanski films. These songs are unsettling for the directness with which they depict over-the-top horror, but all the more so for the casualness with which she rattles off each terrifying detail. If she’s willing to readily admit to her bedroom smelling like rotting food or killing off one of God’s messengers, you have to wonder what sort of terrifying possibilities lie outside of the frame.

It’s a suggestion that’s only aided by the genteel instrumentation, fleshed out beyond the vague simplicity of her dirge-like guitar strumming for the first time on this record. There’s still moth-eaten Americana throughout (most evident on “White Trashing,” when she’s literally depicting a pair of stoop-dwellers), but the lightly threaded electric guitar and spacious drum patters lift her work more heavenward than ever before — something like the earthy post-Slowdive project Mojave 3, if they nursed an obsession with guts and gore. It gives Dollanganger a ghostly presence throughout the record, and makes her dead-eyed delivery on tracks like “Angels of Porn” all the more petrifying. She’s there and then she’s not, whispering about “giv[ing] her body to Satan” and then drifting away to hide behind instrumentation that’s simultaneously as gossamer and sinister as a burial gown.

Another version of “Angels” was circulating last year, and its out-of-tune guitar was enough to aid the on-the-nose brutality of couplets like “Your fingers up inside of me / Feel like fingers down my throat.” But here, in full clarity, such bareness is robbed of its haunting quality and serves as a stomach-churning punch to the gut. Still, even those moments, which can be upsetting out of context, hit hardest in the midst of Natural Born Losers’ otherwise fluttering beauty. Even when she exposes the grim, there’s an invitation to go check out more of what she’s keeping in the closet. She tries to sum it up as succinctly as she can on “You’re So Cool”: “When I’m good, I’m really good / But when I’m bad, I’m better.” And she’s right.