A Dark and Fitting Tribute
In 1988 the world tragically lost an icon. Christa Päffgen, better known as Nico, was killed while riding her bike in Ibiza. Nearly 30 years later fellow poet and artist Patti Smith alongside Soundwalk Collective pay tribute to Nico through Killer Road, an album that details the poems and famous lyrics of Nico and places them in front of the very land that claimed her life.
The most important item of note for this album, save its historical context in regards to Nico, comes from its recording techniques. The Soundwalk Collective is known for going the extra mile when it comes to field recordings, and they again deliver on Killer Road. They paint a lush, and oftentimes harrowing backdrop to Nico’s lyrics as recited by Patti Smith, by recording in the very same place that took Nico’s life. The effect this has on the album is palpable, immediately allowing it to outpace most spoken word/poetry albums by virtue of its prowess as a standalone ambient album. Even though the backdrop may feel appropriate for ambiance, much of the album refuses to linger in the background, tracks like “My Heart is Empty” and “The Sphinx” immediately reach out for attention, their cutting lyrics and powerful delivery snatch the listener from a daze of chirping bugs and lull them off into wooded trails, coaxing them to come closer, and search for the pockets without sound that punctuate each revelatory line. Smith delivers an excellent performance in these songs as well; she is the aforementioned siren. Each line is ruminated upon, and repeated multiple times over, her tone shifting with each repetition as though she is discovering meaning with each recitation. She is the Virgil of this album, guiding the audience down through the spiraled staircase of Nico’s psyche, pulling back the curtain on a young genius who was ripped from this earth far too young.
Nico’s words are clearly the main subject of this album. This is a startling change of pace for a group known for field recordings, but certainly a welcome one. Beautiful lines like “My heart is empty, but the songs I sing are filled with love for you. A man said that to me that’s how I know.” Allow the listener to peer deep into Nico as a person, a relic of a silent form of celebrity many are unfamiliar with. There’s a lingering uncertainty to the line, as if she cannot truly identify herself without the input of others, she spends the track begging for help, asking for others to show her the way, painting a picture of crippling humanity and self-doubt despite success. In “The Sphinx” Smith recites the lyric “A light insanely bright. Standing, a fainting force. My loneliness remains attending.” Revealing an inescapable loneliness, but perhaps most interesting on this track is the blending of the background and Smith’s delivery. Soundwalk Collective paints a threatening backdrop of ambient noise that at times grows shrill and at times dips low, but never loses its menacing air. Smith’s delivery is complimentary in much the same way, frequently devolving from calculated phrasing and pace into frantic stammers and forceful ramblings. It’s like lingering outside of a mental patients cell in an abandoned asylum, standing still and silent among the creaking wreckage, locked motionless a state of overwhelming fear, despite the shadows that may lurk nearby.
The album suffers from no immediate glaring flaws, its only drawback being its low accessibility threshold and the blending of a few songs through the center of the record. Tracks like “Saeta” and “Secret Side” are not particularly gripping when compared to the front and back of the album, but are never offensively bland. Killer Road stands as a clear example of a poetry album done properly, by never giving in to overly flamboyant tendencies or excessively indulgent instrumentation it creates a calculated atmosphere of uncertainty and darkness that is befitting of the lyrical content and delivery. The whole experience culminating in a strong case for Smith and Soundwalk Collectives cult legend statuses and a beautiful and moving tribute to one of the great artists from years past.