Sunday, February 5, 2023

Nico - (The) Drama of Exile reissue (1981/1983/2021)

Nico is a curious and frustrating artist. She was a model and actress turned musician, despite limited musical training and an unusual voice that she was generally uninterested in adapting to mainstream taste. She guested on the first Velvet Underground album to great success and then made an album of folk songs largely written by VU members and former male lovers, which she promptly dismissed after the producer sweetened the mixes with extra instruments without her knowledge. And from then on, she never made another attempt to cater to mainstream tastes. Most of her subsequent albums were produced by John Cale and were grounded in her droning harmonium. The arrangements are typically dark, minimalist, and unsettling. Unsurprisingly, the gothic rock and industrial scenes adored her. Bauhaus brought her on stage twice, Throbbing Gristle attempted a full-album cover of Desertshore, and she duetted with Marc Almond. Her spiteful attitude to the press included constant autobiographical reinvention and provocative political statements that further alienated her from mainstream attention.

While Nico’s music fascinates me, I have to be honest that I don’t actually enjoy most of it very much. The VU album and Chelsea Girl are classics, of course, but of the rest, most of it is just too dark to want to put on very often. But there is one major exception: Drama of Exile, first released in 1981, and re-released with different tracks and mixes in 1983 as The Drama of Exile. It was her only album after Chelsea Girl without Cale or her harmonium. Instead, it features French and Middle Eastern musicians blending instruments, rhythms, and styles from a variety of sources. It may be her most “rock” album, but it doesn’t sound like any other rock album I know. The result is her best album by a wide margin.

[The Drama of Exile (1983).]

However, this album has been long marred by a confusing release history. There are conflicting stories about what happened (which Wikipedia explains in fair detail), but the short version is that the originally released version by Aura in 1981 was unfinished and prematurely released against Nico’s and producer Philippe Quilichini’s wishes. The re-release on Invisible Records in 1983 is supposedly the authorized version. Quilichini claimed it was entirely re-recorded, but it sounds more like a remix with overdubs. Due to a mess of legal circumstances, both versions have been reissued in various formats and in various countries. Some of these tracks also appeared on other releases, such as Icon (1996). Sorting out what is what and what really happened is difficult.

[Drama of Exile (1981). Seriously, who authorized this cover?]

However, thanks to a new reissue on Modern Harmonic from 2021, it’s finally easy to sort out the differences. It features the original 1981 version as well as the 1983 remixes, although for some reason the “Saēta”/“Vegas” single isn’t included, despite that both songs were on the 1983 version. That’s a shame, because they’re both great tracks (although thankfully available on compilations elsewhere), but at least you can compare the rest of the two versions side-by-side. (The Martin Hannett-produced “Procession”/“All Tomorrow’s Parties” single from 1982 is also overlooked, but the Femme Fatale compilation from 2002 has both tracks, although they sound like they were mastered from vinyl.)

[“Saēta”/“Vegas” single (1981).]

So what’s the difference? Well, first off, the 1983 version dropped “Purple Lips” and added “Saēta” and “Vegas”. “Purple Lips” is probably the weakest track of the whole bunch, so that was no great loss. The next most obvious difference is the track lengths: all of the 1983 versions are shorter, except for “The Sphinx”. A few (“Henry Hudson”, “Sixty/Forty”) were sped up, but most are just slightly tighter mixes. “One More Chance” and “Orly Flight” both lost over a minute, including a few lines at the end, but neither is a great loss.

Otherwise, the differences are in the instrumentation and mix. The basic tracks are the same. Generally, the 1981 version is sparser, simpler, starker, and less well-defined. The instruments are generally not very clear and the mixes are a bit thin and muddy. The 1983 version has more instruments, in particular more synths, electric violin, bouzouki, and backing vocals. The mixes are much fuller and more detailed. For example, the 1981 version of “One More Chance” has piercing lead guitar, while the 1983 version has more synth, violin, and vocals. “Henry Hudson” lost the needling violin and gained blaring sax throughout. The original “Orly Flight” has a weirdly compressed sax, synth, or violin part, while the remake has bouzouki and more percussion.

In most cases, the 1983 version is undoubtedly superior. “Sixty/Forty” is a bit hard to call, as the stark austerity of the 1981 version is quite good and almost rivals the more atmospheric 1983 version. (I think I still prefer the latter.) The strangest matter is the two covers. The 1981 version of “Waiting for the Man” is rawer, punkier, and closer to the spirit of the original VU version. The 1983 version trades the prominence of the guitar in favor of the piano, which turns it into something more like the later lackadaisical versions sometimes played by Lou Reed solo. The 1983 mix is also strangely murky. It’s decidedly inferior to the 1981 version. “Heroes” is also complicated. The 1983 version some extra backing vocals and other minor details, but the mix is again rather murky, especially in the vocals. The 1981 version has sax solos, more prominent violin, and a slightly better mix. It’s a hard call, but the 1981 version is slightly superior. I’m not quite sure what happened with those two; how or why did they get worse?

In the end, neither version is perfect, but both are good. I’m glad to finally have ready access to both, as well as the other tracks from the same era. I’ve satisfied myself by making a playlist of my preferred version, using the ordering of the 1983 version and most of its tracks, but substituting the two covers from the 1981 version. I’ve added “Purple Lips” and the “Procession”/“All Tomorrow’s Parties” single as bonus tracks. Now I have the best of both worlds!

1981 version: B
1983 version: B+
2021 reissue: A-
“Saēta”/“Vegas” single: A
“Procession”/“All Tomorrow’s Parties” single: B

[“Procession”/“All Tomorrow’s Parties” single (1982).]

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