Online descriptions of Franz Nicolay read more like a blurb straight from the pages of a Circus Program rather than an artist’s bio. Words like boisterous, frantic and wild jump off the screen and having no prior knowledge of Nicolay’s work, honestly I was a little afraid at what I had gotten myself into. “Welome to the wild and wonderful world of Franz Nicolay…” the album description reads, and I can’t help but picture myself walking slowly into the Freak Show tent from American Horror Story. If this album, To Us, The Beautiful! is a Circus then Nicolay is the Ringmaster, expertly manipulating every aspect of the music to create something weird and as promised, wonderful.
“To us, the beautiful, and to those who disagree may their eyes fall out.” This is the Ukrainian toast of which the record and opening single is named after, and I like it. So much so, I think I’m going to adopt it. “Cheers” just seems so basic now. The intro to this one reeks of grandeur that would rival Meatloaf, before splintering into a head bashing punk-rock beat. While admittedly this genre is not my favourite, Nicolay is already something different and like any good showman, catches my attention immediately.
By Marfa Lights, I’m hooked and have to know more. The layered female harmony is unexpected and lovely, and the song is almost split in two, one part slowed down and funky in a Rocky Horror-esque verse, the other a folky, light, accessible chorus. It’s a sound that is continued somewhat in Talk To Him In Shallow Water, the folky finger picking meeting the scratch of the electric guitar, making for one of the many complex sounds on this album of contradictions.
Bright White is a must-hear, the pretty intro deceiving the listener until the song opens up into an all-out rock anthem. Another is Everything Is Going According To Plan which had me drawing comparisons with The Whitlams’ Blow Up The Pokies and Semisonic’s Closing Time, perhaps even Billy Joel’s Piano Man, his instrument of choice replaced instead by that electric guitar Nicolay navigates so well. The Pilot Inside is a different sound again, a joyous and cheery little ditty while tracks like Bring Me A Mirror are quiet and theatrical, like watching a character’s dramatic monologue on a Broadway stage.
To Us, The Beautiful! is a tour through Ringmaster Nicolay’s magic bag of tricks, with surprises at every turn and layer upon layer of intricate musicality that I will never fully understand. It conjured images in my mind of everything from Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe to Les Miserables’ Jean Veljean and I’m almost certain I haven’t had too much wine. It is a lesson in entertainment, always changing and never predictable. When I read other reviewers claiming this record as one of the first truly great efforts of 2015 I thought they were perhaps going a bit far, but I’m happy to join their chorus and give this fascinating talent the ovation he deserves.