A Young Person’s Guide To… Nina Hagen (Part III)

Nina Hagen (Part III)
By Tommy Mostalas 

Dedicated to T.H Kovalevsky

Om Namah Shivay! (1999)
Strange thing this, but it turns out that one of the best records that Nina Hagen ever released, aside of course from the magisterial ‘nunsexmonkrock’, just happened to be an album of devotional chants to Shiva that was sung almost exclusively in Sanskrit. I’m talking of course of 1999’s fantastic ‘Om Namah Shivay!’ 

I have to hold my hands up though and admit to being somewhat dubious on first hearing about the album, imagining that it would be some kind of vanity project, y’know the usual tacky and insensitive New Age dreich. However I recall that when I first told a friend of my intention to review Hagen’s discography a few months back she immediately singled out this album to me and told me how much it had helped her through a recent rough patch. And indeed ‘Om Namah Shivay!’ figures as something of a revelation, a deeply compelling introduction to a centuries old tradition of worship and praise, that doesn’t sound at all out of place as a work of popular music.

Now prior to this, I’d only heard Hindu devotional vocal music a few times — and almost always in Indian music stores in Leicester while searching out Bollywood film DVDs. I have to say that on those occasions, I actually really enjoyed it. But daunted by the scale and breadth of the tradition — mostly a question of not knowing where to start — and wary of drifting off into New Age-y waters I hesitated about following up on my interest. Fortunately ‘Om Namah Shivay!’ has had the very positive effect of making me completely re-evaluate my previous cautiousness. 

On an initial, cursory, listen there is little that is distinctively Hagenesque about the album and Nina’s voice seems to rather lose itself in the blend of distinctively sacral, ceremonial elements. Further listens quickly reveal the unmistakable, sensual heft of that voice, however. 

The record starts off — as I assume is ritualistically correct— with the shank invocation, an extended note blown on a shankha conch shell, divine symbol of female fertility due to its strong resemblance to the vulva (source: Wikipedia). This is followed by an resonant, earthy aum on the didgeridoo accompanied by a solitary male chant. If the starkness of that first chant and the drone that succeeds it, expanding endlessly outwards into cold black space, are somewhat disorientating to the uninitiated listener, then the next track, floating in on the warm comforting tones of a harmonium, is far more welcoming. A hymn to Durga, one of the multitude of forms taken on by the mother goddess, it consists of a litany of seven hundred names of praise (it seems less but I’ve not sat there and counted them all); indeed the name of the track is literally ‘700 Names In Praise Of Mother Durga’. Other album highlights include such ecstatic bhakti earworms as ‘Shri Siddha Siddeshvari Mata Haidhakandeshvariji Aarati!’ and ‘Jai Mata Kali Jai Mata Durge!’, along with the fabulous Hindu-ska crossover of ‘He Shiva Shankara!’ — and that’s just a selection of the glittering jewels on offer.  

One thing that might catch you a little off guard about ‘Om Namah Shivay’ is how familiar these hymns sound, despite the ‘exotic’ cultural trappings of the music, the relative unfamiliarity of the language and the beliefs that undergird everything — and just how uncanny that feeling of familiarity can sometimes be. But then I suppose that’s the whole point of it: the music is meant to be instantaneously familiar, to sound like you’ve been hearing it your whole life. The deep feelings of resonance provoked by the music also breed a sense of calm and reassurance: and not that facile approximation that seems to characterize most New Age muzak. Indeed Hagen should be applauded for producing an album that avoids the usual demeaning New Age cliches so often resorted to by musicians in search of a bit of easy Eastern inspiration. 

But you can’t help but ask: aside from her vocals — vocals that as I mentioned above soon become distinctive in the overall mantric mix, but that are still not the focal point of the music — how much did Nina actually contribute to the music itself and to its arrangement? To what extent did she merely take a centuries old tradition of worship and simply transplant it to a recording studio? I am far from being qualified to answer that, and the question seems slightly churlish even if it is unavoidable. I will say this though, tracks like ‘Hare Krsna Hare Rama!’ sound remarkably soulful to me and it feels as if Nina, given with her familiarity with soul and gospel actively sought to accentuate the resonances between the two devotional traditions. 

Potential socio-cultural quibbles aside, this is a wonderful record, and, to my mind, one of the crowning achievements of Hagen’s career. (9/10).

Return of the Mother (2000) 
Sadly ‘Return of the Mother’ is really just a return to the dreariness and half-arsedness of Nina Hagen’s 80s/90s output, after the somewhat dazzling respite of her previous two releases. The title track demonstrates a good deal of pep, even if it is essentially just industrial-by-numbers. The rest is a soggy melange of lacklustre beats — beats that were well past their sell by date at the turn of the millennium — and a slightly dazed, woozy sounding Hagen. OK maybe that’s slightly unfair, her voice is probably the best part of the record. But the songs let her down, and they let her down massively.  Oh so forgettable (3/10). 

Big Band Explosion (2003),  Irgendwo auf der Welt (2006)
I don’t know if you’ll remember — some of you won’t of course because you weren’t even alive then or at least hadn’t started on solids yet — but around the turn of the millennium swing-era big band music became a major part of the plastic pop zeitgeist thanks to the likes of Michael Bublé, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the Gap marketing department, pre-millennial masters in the art of corporate conformity. Nina Hagen, too, allowed herself to be swept along on the wave, trying her hand at big band music on two early 00’s releases, the second one better than the first.

2003’s ‘Big Band Explosion’ finds Nina coming to artistic terms with a voice that like fine vintage leather has been rendered distinguished and slightly creaky with age, but without ever doing really anything interesting with it. For, despite Hagen’s attempts at irreverence and her forced zaniness (see for instance her weird and entirely uncalled for wheezing goblin coda to ‘The Lady Loves Me’) ‘BBE’ is a disappointingly trite run through the old, familiar — indeed by now tiresomely familiar — standards.  In quite poor taste alas (4/10).

A considerable improvement on ‘Big Band Explosion’, 2003’s ‘Irgendwo auf der Welt’ boasts a real feeling of warmth thanks to the sensitivity and naturalness of Hagen’s interpretations (in contrast to the flatness of the performances on the previous record) and the luxurious carpet of sound laid out by the Capital Dance orchestra. ‘Irgendwo’ works well as a hearkening back to a long vanished age of decadence that, in hindsight, seems so precarious under the shadow of impending global catastrophe, but whose music now sounds quaint and strangely desexualised. Still Hagen does it so much more justice this time round (7/10). 

Personal Jesus (2010)
If the previous two records marked a definitive turn from original material towards covers (which, let’s face it, isn’t all that much of a tragedy) then 2010’s ‘Personal Jesus’ marked a clear, religious, turn away from Shiva and Durga Ma and towards Jesus Christ as saviour. Musically this shift manifested itself in an album of stripped down blues and gospels covers, and of course Depeche Mode are in there too. It’s all eminently forgettable with Nina often sounding distant and strangely lethargic, although Hagen’s full blooded rendition ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ does give curious listeners something of a hint as to how actually good this record could have been if the Holy Spirit had actually been on her side. (5/10)

Volksbeat (2011)
Two important lessons that I’ve learned from listening to the Hagen discography. The first is to never completely write Hagen off. She may have inflicted the likes of ‘Street’, ‘Fearless’, ‘Return of the Mother’ and ‘Revolution Ballroom’ on a, mercifully, indifferent public; but for every four or five such horrors she’s always managed to redeem herself with an album the likes of ‘Nunsexmonkrock’, ‘FreuD euch’, and ‘Om Nama Shivay!’ — not an exceptional ratio it’s true, but still within the bounds of respectability. ‘Volksbeat’, a very welcome return to the punky form of ‘FreuD euch’ after the indifference of ‘Personal Jesus’, fits rather snugly in the latter category. 

The second of the two lessons concerns the language situation: namely, take it as a rule of thumb that Hagen singing in German will generally be much better bet than Hagen singing in English. ‘Volksbeat’ for instance finds our beloved proto-punk diva greatly revitalised and positively revelling in her mother tongue, demonstrating the kind of flair that puts late 80s/early 90’s Hagen truly to shame. The album contains a number of covers in German of English-language songs, including two by Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman, one by the Christian band Sonseed, and ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ (or ‘Noch Ein Tässchen Kaffee’ as it is in the old Deutsch) by Bob Dylan who was a Christian for a few years back there. Nina’s excellent punk cover of Seal’s ‘Killer’ and the full-on Ska blast of her Sonseed cover, ‘Jesus ist ein Freund von mir’, both demonstrate that Hagen’s humour is finally back at its best (Nina’s clearing her throat to hawk up phlegm at the end of ‘Killer’ is a truly delectable and perverted pleasure). 

The energy of those early Nina Hagen Band releases is here in droves but this time the band feels tighter and has stamina enough to keep pace with Hagen’s driving enthusiasm.  At the end of the day ‘Volksbeat’ is good clean honest Christian fun and serves as ample compensation for ‘Personal Jesus’’s irresolution. No such hesitancy here. Long may the Mother of Punk reign. (8/10)
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Author: tomymostalas

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