Unpopular advent 2018 – Day 17

Princess Chelsea – The Loneliest Girl

There is a terrific moment towards the end of ‘The Loneliest Girl’’s closing track (the lovely ‘All I Need To Do’) in which Princess Chelsea sings about watching Springsteen and Little Steven singing ‘Promised Land’. Initially hearing the reference is something of a jarring moment, but then we quickly realise that it is the perfect connection for it punctures the notion of Springsteen as an essentially masculine figure and illuminates him as theatrical character (we’ll come back to this in a few days time), just as Princess Chelsea herself is a crafted Pop persona. And here we are again at this point where we celebrate Pop as theatre; Pop as the rejection of inherited definitions of authenticity.

‘The Loneliest Girl’ is a knowingly, lovingly constructed illusion housed within a carefully documented reality. Or is it the other way round? Certainly there appears to be an autobiographical narrative going on here but from the cover photograph/illustration to the songs themselves there is always the question mark hanging over concepts of truth and reality. Where does Chelsea Nikkel end and Princess Chelsea begin? Or indeed vice-versa. This is the eternal, essential Pop Star conundrum.

There is certainly something of Saint Etienne in Princess Chelsea too (the icy cool take on ‘And I Love Her’ would be her ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ if only the title track from this album hadn’t gone and made such a cheeky wonky photocopy of the Young vs Etienne classic), and since we are on the subject can I slip off on a momentary tangent and say how much I have been enjoying the 2018 re-issue of ‘Fox Base Beta’? It completely passed me by previously and though I was initially sceptical it really is rather tremendous, isn’t it? I’m aware too that this should not come as any sort of surprise really for when has anything involving Saint Etienne ever been less than magical?

When too has Princess Chelsea ever been anything less than magical? Certainly listening to The Loneliest Girl, then revisiting The Great Cybernetic Depression and L’il Golden Book (plus her terrific 2016 covers set ‘Aftertouch’) I’m struck that the answer is Pretty Much Never. Looking back too I have been reminded of those great Brunettes records (and man, there was another Springsteen reference right there in ‘Summer Love’ too) and let’s not forget that it’s Brunettes’ Jonathan Bree whose collaboration helps make ‘The Loneliest Girl’ so terrific and hey, wasn’t his own ‘Sleepwalking’ set just the best Magnetic Fields record that Stephin Merritt didn’t make in 2018? And whilst we are also on the caffeinated rush of writing, let’s also point out Chelsea’s contribution to a couple of cuts on that set returning the compliment as it were.

Glistening gems populate the entirety of ‘The Loneliest Girl’ but it’s to one of the most obviously autobiographical numbers that I keep coming back to. ‘Growing Older’ is a song about, well, growing older. Lyrically it is very straight and almost diaristic. Chelsea recounts facts and moments (“some of us are almost thirty /some of us are older” precedes the recounting of an encounter with a younger girl in a bar in which haircut envy appears to be the driving force of the observation) whilst metaphorically shrugging her shoulders and admitting that getting older is a lot more enjoyable that she might have thought a decade ago. A simple keyboard refrain roots the song whilst squalls of guitars and feedback seep into the background to lend texture and shade. This spacious sound stage on which Chelsea’s vocal drifts is not a million miles away from Molly Nilsson (whose terrific ’20/20′ set only just missed out on appearing here) or the gorgeous blissed out sparseness of Cara Dal Forno (whose 2016 ‘You Know What It’s Like’ set I somehow missed at the time despite adoring single ‘Fast Cars’). At its best (which is almost all of the time) Chelsea’s voice drifts over like Connie Stevens seducing Nico or Trish Keenan singing Ann-Margret numbers in that hillside meadow where we never did get to listen to Tracey Thorn. It’s a voice we at once recognise as being utterly familiar and yet simultaneously find ourselves being drawn into by the details of difference. It’s a good reference point for Princess Chelsea in general for she is an artist who can on the surface seem glimmeringly, glamorously Pop yet once the surface is touched the ripples reveal an intriguing and darker subterranean depth. To put it another way, Princess Chelsea is perhaps a Mrs Maisel of contemporary Pop. She’s certainly every bit as marvellous.

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