The Haunting Storytelling Of Nicole Dollanganger
An in depth look of the history, lyrics, and discography of Canadian sad-core / ambient / dream pop artist Nicole Dollanganger.
HISTORY & CAREER:
Born in Stouffville Ontario in 1991, Nicole Bell... (otherwise known by her chosen stage name Nicole Dollanganger) began writing, recording, and her producing her own music which she began posting frequently on her tumblr account and on bandcamp in the early 2010s, more specifically around early 2011. Nicole's first four albums Curdled Milk (2012), Flowers of Flesh And Blood (2012), Ode To Dawn Wiener: Embarrassing Love Songs (2013), and Observatory Mansions (2014) were all recorded either in her bedroom or in her bathroom, on her mac book, while she was sick and on bed rest recovering from anorexia and bulimia. Since she wasn't signed with any sort of record label at the time, with each album she sold, she sold all copies (while limited) on hand-made CD's and Cassettes that she made herself.
Regardless of where you begin your listen within her discography, one is almost immediately taken aback by her vocals. Her very high pitched, soft, lullaby-esc can be offputting, or at the very least surprising at first. Her voice accompanied by the minimal instrumentation in the majority of her tracks, give so many of her songs a very evocative and eerie feeling to the listener. Her lyrics aren't shy in that regard either, and are certainly not for the faint of heart. They don't hold back in telling whatever story it is that Nicole wants to say. Often, she's touched on themes such as gore, sex, BDSM, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, true crime & serial killers, and other topics that I would say not many other artists have touched on as frequently, nor in the same way that she has, if they even have at all. Her music is as beautiful, as it is brutal.
In 2015, Nicole opened for Lana Del Rey & Grimes at their joint show in Toronto, and it was around that time when she signed with Eerie Organization, a record label specifically created by Grimes to sign and help create and produce her fifth album Natural Born Losers (2015). Later that same year Rolling Stone put her on their list of "10 New Artists That You Need To Hear". In early 2016, Nicole saw more commercial success within her career, when her single 'Chapel' was featured in an episode of 'The Walking Dead', she even went to tour and collab with other Gothic Folk artists like Elvis Depressedly, Code Orange, & Teen Suicide.
In early 2017, Nicole announced on social media that she was working on a new album. Later that year the first five tracks were released on BandCamp and in 2018, her sixth and most recent album Heart Shaped Bed (2018) was released to the public. On top of her studio releases, Nicole has EPs, cover tracks, and un-released albums which can be accessed on BandCamp, on YouTube, as well as archived within her tumblr, like, Columbine (2013), Unreleased (2014), BabyLand (2014), & Greta Gibson Forever (2015).
Though Nicole has gained more commercial success since her early beginnings on social media since signing with Grimes' label, for the most part, she still remains fairly underground compared to other artists shes collabed with in the past, or others within her genre. Her most streamed song on Spotify currently sits at just over 3 million listens. Now that doesn't make her any better or any worse than any main stream, or underground artist, but it's nice to know that after six albums, and even signing to a record label, she hasn't steered away from what she is... she hasn't (for lack of a better word) "sold out". Her "quality" may have improved throughout the years, which has resulted in a very slight change of sound with her last two albums, but at the end of the day she remains as authentic as she was back in 2011, and no matter what album you listen to, there's so much to unpack and dissect, and I love doing it.
In this article, I will be going album by album, talking (mostly) about what songs stick out to me, and the meaning behind them. If relevant I'll be discussing what I liked and what I didn't like about each album, and at the end I'll be ranking her albums based on my own personal preference. Please note, I am not a critic, I simply enjoy talking about the art that I love, and I hope that through this article I'm able to introduce you to an artist who you may not necessarily have known otherwise. If you do manage to look her up let me know what you think about your discovery! It's rare finding someone else in my life who actually appreciates her music in the same way, and the more people I have to talk to about it, the merrier!
Please note, that her music HEAVILY touches on themes that could be considered very triggering for many individuals.
MUSIC (BY ALBUM):
Nicole doesn't hold back at all in the opening track of her debut album. 'Coma Baby' is an extremely uncomfortable re-telling of a friend of hers who was in a horrific car accident, leaving him in a coma, and with permanent brain damage. It's a very heartbreaking way to open an album, and it doesn't let up throughout. 'Holes of Albinos' follows right after, which is another disturbing story, this time speaking about the very real persecution and genocide of individuals who suffer from Albinism in many parts of Africa to this day.
Her lyrics are really what stand out so much in her art, and it backs up what I mentioned earlier about how her music is "beautiful but brutal". Obviously, at many times the subject matter can be very hard to listen to, but it's the way uses her voice that makes it so mesmerizing in the end. It's uneasy, but in all the right ways, and I mean it when I say that it's like that with every song, especially in this album. I know how in some ways that could get repetitive, or boring, but I think she's able to find that balance to tell the stories, some of which occasionally repeat itself, in a different way each time so it doesn't became stale by the end of the album.
Another stand out song within the album is the track, 'Blood Brothers'... a raw and haunting love story about being unbearably close to and in love with someone. 'Barren', is a heartbreaking tale of a woman unable to get pregnant and her disappointment in herself, and the depression that follows effecting her marriage with her husband as a result. 'Dog Teeth', which is arguably the most commercially successful song on the album, is a very personal re-telling of a time when Nicole was raped.
She does such a perfect job when it comes to the production value on this release. The album doesn't need any heavy sort of instrumentation or loud blaring vocals. It's her and her guitar, and that adds for a much more intimate listen, since many of the songs are meant to be just that, intimate. She references death in such an "organic" setting in some tracks, with meanings tying into each other, and references to other different forms of media, or real life people throughout history, something that would later come up again and again in future releases. In 'Ghosts' the song revolves around the story of the two main characters in the V.C. Andrews novel 'Flowers in the Attic'.
'Cries of the Elephant Man Bones' the closing track on the album and arguably my favorite track of hers is a re-telling of the life of 'Joseph Merrick'. She talks about the abuse, and the pain that he suffered throughout his life. The message she attempts to send to him is one that full of both comfort and sympathy, something that I'm sure he didn't receive a lot of during his life. She references the 1932 horror classic 'Freaks' with the line 'gooble gobble, gooble gobble, we accept you, we accept you...' she even includes an excerpt on the album from 'The Elephant Man' (1982), a historical biography of the life Joseph Merrick directed by David Lynch. It's a very bittersweet, & almost melancholic ending to what was a touching album.
'Flowers Of Flesh And Blood'... the title being a nod to the second installment in the underground horror Japanese 'Guinea Pig' film series, and also the second album within Nicole's discography is, if I'm being honest, probably my least favorite of her albums. I'm not really sure why that is, I still enjoy the album, but compared to the others, there are clear strengths in those ones, but I don't think there are as many that hold up just as well as the rest of the albums have. I think with the other albums, it's very distinct in what overall theme their trying to represent, and I feel like this album is more unsure of itself than the rest of them.
Where 'Curdled Milk' excels in the lyrical department, I think what does make this sophomore album stand out is the instrumentation. There's a much more tender, somber, & solemn sound than I think the rest of them posses. That isn't to say that bold lyrical content isn't still there, I mean, the album opens with 'Rabid' a dark re-telling about two people's journey within an abusive relationship. 'Nebraska' tells the story of 19-year-old Charles Starkweather, and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril-Ann Fugate and follows the murder spree the couple went on in 1958, and what was ultimately a dark love story. 'Lividity' follows the story of Eric Harris, one of the shooters of the Columbine shooting, which isn't her only song she's ended up writing about the topic. 'Fleurs Captives' is yet another nod to the V.C. Andrews novel 'Flowers in the Attic'. The albums closing track 'Flowers Of Flesh And Blood' follows the story of the film by the same name which I mentioned earlier.
When it comes to Nicole's music, this isn't the first album that comes to mind when speaking to someone about her music. I think the songs I listed in my stand outs are very well made songs, I love listening to them, I won't skip this album if it comes on my playlist, but I still, even after listening to it as much as I have, I find it odd that I still haven't found something that I can latch onto in the same way that I can the others.
Nicole's third album who's title is a nod to another film with a decent sized cult following, takes its title from the the film that won the 1995 Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival of that same year, 'Welcome to the Dollhouse'. This one, is probably my favorite. It has the first songs of hers in it that I discovered way back in my 8tracks days. (...Yeah, I was one of those). I think it's her most clever in terms of production value and lyrical content, and while this doesn't have an effect on my personal liking of the album, if you take a look at statistics on Genius and Spotify, it's also probably her most commercially successful album out of her first four independent releases.
The topics and themes Nicole chooses to cover in this album are in a way very different and in a way, lighter, than what we've seen so far throughout her releases. There are still issues that she speaks of that are of significantly weighty topics, but this time around we get songs like 'True Love Cafe', 'Sweet Girl', and 'Smitten With You' where, while the lyrics are in many ways what one would describe as risque, they are also very sweet, in a sort of over the top, lovey dovey, sexual way. We also get songs like 'My Pug' which is a super adorable love letter to, well, exactly that... her pug.
Like I mentioned before, the album doesn't shy away from it's darker moments, either. 'Ugly' and 'Please Eat' are heartbreaking yet beautiful tracks that talk about body image, self hatred, and eating disorders. Songs that feel so personal when she sings about them, given her own state of being when she originally recorded them in the first place, it's powerful, in a tragic way, and it's something that so many people who are listening can relate too. Whether you have or you do suffer from your own self esteem issues, or someone who you love who does, there's a very personalized experience that one feels while listening to it.
I really think that at this point in Nicole's career, was the highlight of what she knew she could be as an artist, and what she wanted to be, and I think that's one of the reasons why I enjoy the album so much. There's more references to other forms of media which Nicole takes and uses in her own unique way to tell a personal story, just like we've seen her do with her other albums. 'He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)' features a sample of the song of the same title by The Crystals. 'The 700 Club' mentions the religious programming network that once aired on NBC television. In 'Blue Moon Motel' she compares relationship in to various movie couples, like, Mickey & Mallory (Natural Born Killers), Joe & Norma (Sunset Boulevard), and Clarence & Alabama (True Romance).
She's able to take these 'dark' & 'sexual' themes and put them in such a way where they feel almost wholesome. There's so much while listening to this, it almost makes me wish the album was longer than it's 25 minute run time, you just want to keep hearing more.
'Observatory Mansions' is the fourth and final independent release from Nicole. There is a very melancholic, airy, innocent sound in this with the way Nicole displays both her voice and the instrumentation in this album. It sounds hazy, and playful... take that and mix it with Nicole's typical rough themes and gruesome lyrics, and it really adds and uncomfortable yet engaging listen. I would even go so far to say, overall, her most uncomfortable.
There is also a different layer of maturity in this album. At this point in her career, it's been about three years since her first release, and I think there's a layer of growth there. 'Observatory Mansions' the albums opening track, touches on the passing of time resulting in the overbearing fear of ones inevitable fate. There's a lot of stand out's on this album. Nicole touches on the Columbine Massacre for the second time in her career with the track 'Rampage' and I would say that the way she handles it, makes it a far more effective listen than 'Lividity' on FOFAB. There's lines taken right from the two killers journals, a very descriptive visualization of the actual event, and even goes so far as to use dialogue from the home videos of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. 'Choking Games' tells the story of Karla Homolka & Paul Bernardo, more specifically the killing of Karla's sister. 'Angels Of Porn (I)' she talks about her on going struggle in living with bulimia. 'Nara Dreamland' she speaks about her infatuation with the abandoned Japanese theme park with the same name. 'Please Just Stay Dead' takes a reference to the novel 'Pet Semetary' and applies it to an abusive relationship she went through.
The majority of her albums usually have really short run times, with most of them falling just under 35 minutes. With Embarrassing Love Songs, it feels like it could have been just a bit longer. This one, with the way it's produced and the way she's able to wrap it up, and say what she needs to say, the album feels like just the perfect run time, and can we just talk about that closing line in 'Don't Be Scared' for a minute?
'Death is a beginning, not an end'.
'Natural Born Losers' a play on the title of the 1995 movie 'Natural Born Killers' and is the fifth album from Nicole, and the first album that she released under a signed label. There's a noticeable change between this album and the previous four, and that is the sound. There's more guitar, the music is louder, it's gritty, the soft, and stripped down sound that we've heard up until this point is gone, and while it's still in that slow and melancholic tone, it's much more overpowering when combined with her soft and gentle voice. It's an interesting change, and I'll admit it did take me a while to really enjoy and appreciate exactly what the album is. I appreciate her willingness to try something new, and now that this album really has hit me, I appreciate it so much more. It did something that I'm still hoping one day happens with FOFAB does.
Like I've said many times before in this article, I do think that there are some tracks on this album that are cleverly written. 'Poachers Pride' talks about her ongoing journey and her struggle with religion, written in the style of one of Shakespeare's sonnets, and even briefly references 'The Merchant of Venice' at one point. 'Mean' is probably one of the darkest sexual songs I've heard, and 'White Trashing' takes the relationship between Mickey & Mallory from the film to which the album is named after, the novel 'Flowers In The Attic', and her own life growing up in small town Southern Ontario. It's bizarre, but, trust me... if you grew up in a small town in Ontario, you will know exactly what she's talking about. Also, just like her previous albums, this album also touches on the subject of true crime with the track 'In The Land' re-telling the horror story of David Parker Ray & Theresa Knorr.
It's quite clear upon listening to the album that the incredibly revolutionary Harmony Korine film 'Gummo' is a huge inspiration behind a lot of the storytelling, even the album cover makes you think of the film. Many cult fans who have seen that film I feel can appreciate this album in a totally different light when listening to this album. In all honesty, that might be the winning factor in this album for me. Nicole is able to take pieces of culture that mean something so special to her or that she relates to, or that appeals or intrigues her and the fact that she's able re-tell them in the way that she does really does deserve some appreciation.
A step back to what made her music more unique in the first place, Nicole's sixth studio album 'Heart Shaped Bed' was released back in 2018. I think this one has almost the perfect blend of what she was trying to accomplish back with 'Natural Born Losers' and everything that she was able to accomplish with her first four independently produced albums from earlier in the decade. The strong studio production value is there, just like it was back with NBL, but she's found a really interesting balance again, that manages to work so perfectly for her and what she is. It has that gentle sound from the beginning, with that rough production value from NBL.
The album opens with the track 'Uncle' which, upon my first time listening to it back on her 2015 BandCamp EP 'Greta Gibson Forever' is probably the first song I've heard of hers that genuinely disturbed me. Originally titled 'I Slept With My Uncle On My Wedding Night' the song is named after V.C. Andrews short story with the same title, which tells the story of... exactly what it says in the title. Incest is obviously a very taboo, unnerving, and very disturbing topic for (hopefully) everyone, and Nicole is able to lure the listener in, and tell what is ultimately... a very depressing and very disturbing love story.
It's not just the albums opener that leaves an effect on you either. 'Tammy Faye' talks about the TV personality, Tammy Faye, from the 1940s. 'Lemonade' the albums biggest single, and another re-release from her 2015 EP talks about the horrors a woman goes through involving the infidelity of her husband. 'Beautiful & Bad' is about the character Taryn White from the 3rd installment in The Nightmare On Elm Street series, which, if you've seen any of the sixth sequels, you know the third one was hands down the best in the entire series. (It's probably one of my favorite horror sequels, ever). 'Chapel' which was originally released as a stand alone single, like I spoke about earlier, was featured on an episode of The Walking Dead.
Between her two studio released albums, I would probably have to say that NBL is my favorite, I think there's a lot of depth here in HSB, and I'm actually really intrigued to see what she does next in her career, if she does decide to continue making music in the future. I really hope that she does, as I feel that even after all these releases, she's on a very strong path and is only growing with each release. I haven't seen anything on her social media regarding whether or not that is the case, but in the meantime, it's reassuring to know that there are so many great albums, EPs, and covers online that I can come back to again and again, and I don't see myself getting tired of them anytime soon.
1. Embarrassing Love Songs: Ode To Dawn Wiener (2013)
2. Observatory Mansions (2014)
3. Natural Born Losers (2015)
4. Curdled Milk (2012)
5. Heart Shaped Bed (2018)
6. Flowers Of Flesh & Blood (2012)