In 2012 Nicole Dollanganger gained traction as a musician with a soft voice that would sing the darkest or most sexual of lyrics as though they were lullabies. At the time, she also lacked experience playing the guitar and piano, and came up with her background music by playing around, recording entire albums using just a webcam microphone. She didn’t follow norms or rules, and I became hooked instantly. Once a niche artist, she’s risen in popularity and recently released Heart Shaped Bed under Crystal Math Music/Eerie Organization, an artist co-op founded by Grimes.
Unfortunately, fans will be disappointed to know there isn’t much to be excited for in Heart Shaped Bed. While Nicole seems to have access to more advanced editing equipment, it isn’t polished or used in a way that enhances the listening experience — not to mention that four of the 10 tracks released are re-recorded, older singles which manage to be less powerful than the originals, and that the lyrics of the new songs seem void of the depth and emotional punch she possessed in her past work. As a whole, Heart Shaped Bed fails to take the Nicole Dollanganger brand to the next level.
The album opens to the haunting melody of “Uncle,” a re-recording that maintains a similar somber note as its predecessor, setting high expectations. This song I have no qualms with; it’s classic Nicole and we’ve heard it before. It sets the tone nicely for the album and paints the picture of a young, yearning girl with a penchant for unhealthy love.
Eventually the album hits “Lemonade,” another re-recording, which is a massive miss because of its wasted potential. It features the echoing of every second lyric within a verse, which is distracting at best and irritating at worst, as well as a musical switch to an electric guitar solo before fading out. When listened back-to-back with the original recording of the same song, I do agree the new album does more to spruce up the otherwise plain sounding track, but it doesn’t sound cohesive and ends up taking away from the experience.
The next big song that’s supposed to leave a lasting effect on us is “Heart Shaped Bed,” but lyrically, it’s a weak song compared even within the album to “Lemonade” or “Chapel.” There’s so much repetition of empty thoughts already expressed better by the aforementioned songs, and overall it lacks the emotional punch Dollanganger usually packs. A lyrical trend in all of her past work was that her music would make the listener feel uncomfortable or dirty even, while sounding comforting. (An example being that the track “Uncle” had the original song name “I.S.W.M.U.O.M.W.N.,” or “I Slept With My Uncle On My Wedding Night.”) While some tracks manage to maintain this legacy, it’s a letdown that the album’s named after a song that feels like the equivalent of a sigh; it’s too safe. The instrumental aspect at this point becomes repetitive and boring. Don’t be surprised if you have a difficult time telling a few of the tracks apart from one another.
While new fans might be impressed by Heart Shaped Bed, mostly because of the novelty of Nicole Dollanganger’s voice and lyrics, it’s unfortunately a disappointment in comparison to her earlier work. Natural Born Losers, released in 2015, replaced soft piano and guitar accompaniment in favour of electric guitars, drums, and bass lines. It was a novel sound for her, but it worked. The fact of the matter is, Dollanganger can and has done better. She’s made her heart shaped bed, but she shouldn’t just lie in it.