“I shot an angel with my father’s rifle. I should have set it free but I let it bleed.” Those lines open Nicole Dollanganger’s Natural Born Losers, the young songwriter’s fifth full-length (but first for Eerie, an artists’ co-op that was co-founded by Grimes specifically so this record could reach a wider audience), which is comprised of nothing but 2015’s most haunting pop songs. What follows is an examination of life’s darker corners, usually cast in the guise of gripping magic realism and supplemented with consistently breathtaking guitar work. Feedback ripples through these songs like blood, providing some lightly menacing color to their ghostly pallor.
Even with an excess of starkness and grotesque violence, there’s a certain elegance in the songs’ delicate filters. Dollangangers airy vocals at times verge on otherworldly, suffusing an overwhelming sense of doom with a near-paradoxical lightness. Hope is fleeting in Natural Born Losers but Dollanganger’s ability to understand and present the beauty in that bleakness renders it a vital, possibly even essential, record. Only two songs in and stories about how her room’s divided by chalk dolls on one side and guns on the other become just a touch more illuminating and meaningful.
There’s a war that’s constantly being waged in Natural Born Killers and the stakes are never relegated to the background. As the album glides forward, the Molotov cocktail of violence and (deceptive) innocence becomes increasingly bracing, allowing the record’s atmospherics to emerge as a complementary focal point. As swans necks break, cops are baited into violence for the purpose of sexual pleasure, executioners are meticulously observed, Satan gets tempted, and mouths are filled with fresh reptilian blood, Dollanganger hovers over her narratives, exerting terrifying control and indulging a shadowy sensibility that’s, disconcertingly, presented as something approaching hedonism.
All throughout Natural Born Losers, the tempo’s downplayed to a near-whisper, allowing for a strange maximization of both Dollanganger’s dynamics and aesthetics. In the record’s chill-inducing lead-off singles, “Angels of Porn (II)” and “You’re So Cool”, this approach is emphasized to achieve a heightened dramatic effect. In the former, the song builds its way into a wall of sound, driven by snaky guitar lines and a committed vocal performance that contains the verse Natural Born Losers hinges on: “I’d give my body to Satan if I could only keep my soul, but I can’t seem to find the split between them anymore.” The latter elevates the record’s considerable level of tension and cloaks itself in ambiguity and pulls at the threads of what’s good, what’s evil, and what’s preferable without ever offering a clear reconciliation.
It’s that song, “You’re So Good”, that unifies and clearly lays out the major thematic elements of Natural Born Losers while also acting as a strong finale. For a record that’s so committed to its cinematic tendencies, it also makes sense that it might follow the rule of bookending (a technique that, traditionally, is supposed to show how much in a given story has evolved based on the first and final frames). Following that law, Dollanganger brings Natural Born Losers to a conclusion that serves as its most haunting moment: “I see the future and there’s no death. ‘Cause, you and I, we’re angels.”
It’s in that moment where it’s difficult to find any words and best to simply resign to a stunned silence before taking a deep breath, collect a modicum of composure, and hit repeat.
Listen to Natural Born Losers below and order it here.