Listen to this track by Teutonic singer, actor, and model Nico. It’s “These Days”, a song as taken from her 1967 record Chelsea Girl, her solo debut. That album is noted by the extremely high quality of songwriting and instrumental talent behind it, including contributions from Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, John Cale, and Tim Hardin.
This particular tune was penned by Jackson Browne, who was a teenager when he wrote the initial iteration of this song. It would evolve later on, and be recorded by several artists including Browne himself later on when he made a name for himself as one of the key figures in the singer-songwriter boom in the early to mid-seventies. Nico was the first to record it in a finished studio version. Browne plays the distinctive electric guitar picking part, accompanying Nico’s distinctively austere and icily distant vocal performance, delivered in her signature lower-register range. All of this is contrasted by a bittersweet wash of strings, added in post-sessions by producer Tom Wilson.
By now, this song has been covered by many, and is perhaps best associated by modern audiences with its use in Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums. Nico’s recording of this song seems to connect with its active ingredients better than most versions do. And what are those ingredients, exactly? And what does Nico bring to it to make it what it is?
By 1967, Nico had seen and experienced much, moving in the upper echelons of mid-century artistry. She became a model at a very young age in Berlin, trading on her tall, blonde, ice-maiden looks after coming out of a war-torn Germany. She appeared in Felini’s La Dolce Vita by the time she was twenty-one. By twenty-four she was a mother, allegedly by French actor Alain Delon. By the middle of the 1960s, she was a figurehead of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene in New York, launching a recording career while also being a part of Warhol’s multimedia events.
She rubbed shoulders with sixties rock icons from Brian Jones, to Jim Morrison, to Iggy Pop, and of course to the Velvet Underground with whom she cut a now-classic album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. On that, she’d established her voice, that being an imperfect, and even damaged instrument that sacrifices technical skill for a tone of almost bottomless ennui as connected to a glacial calm. That interpretative instrument of her voice would make her something of an anti-pop singer during a time when the idea of alternative popular music was only beginning to emerge, attached to art scenes rather than to pure commercial interests. This freed her up to present herself outside of what was commercially viable at the time, and to allow her to create a unique persona for herself.
Therein lies the point of why this song works so well. Interpretation is a skill just like songwriting is. And this is certainly a prime example of how a singer can shape how we perceive what a songwriter has written. Consider Nico’s vocal delivery on this; the sound of someone who has experienced things that perhaps she wished she hadn’t, who has sampled life and has come away from it with scars, regrets, and with youth behind her along with all of the adventurous and free-spirited drive that comes with it. This is a song about someone who finds herself bereft in the autumn of her years too soon. It’s a song about the loss of innocence, or of a futile wish to return to it. Knowing her history, perhaps it’s easy to apply all of this to Nico herself. And perhaps this is why this song is so perfect for her. It seems to tell her story, even if you don’t know her history, all by way of her distinctive voice.
Nico herself died in 1988, yet the influence of her voice and work continues to resonate in this song as well as her other solo recordings, those with The Velvet Underground, and in the music of those she influenced, which includes virtually any singer who emphasizes tone rather than pure vocal technique.
For more about this song and how it was written, take a read of this article from American Songwriter.