It’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate any semblance of Teaadora Nikolova herself from the foundation of affectation on which her songs are built. Virgin Forever, the latest release under her Teaadora moniker, clearly has no interest in clearing up any measure of the confusion over just where the artistic boundaries lay regarding her often devastatingly personal narratives. But then again, her atonal drone folk tendencies were never going to win her any friends very easily. But on Virgin Forever, it’s almost impossible to discern authenticity from the performance art aspect of her music. Not that that has ever been a sticking point for her in the past but it seems that she would, from time to time, want to drop the facade. With that being said though, there are moments of brutal honesty that slip through the well-built divider that Nikolova has erected for herself, and we get brief glimpses of the artist who lives behind the aesthetic.
But she doesn’t make it easy. And maybe that’s all part of the act. Because on opening track “Virgin Forever,” Nikolova pairs a deep rumbling synth with what appear to be snippets of her having an orgasm, which then leads into fits of unearthly wailing. This kind of confrontational sexuality has long been a staple of various performance art techniques. But rather than feeling like an unfiltered expression of gender frustration or a yearning for personal empowerment, the track comes across as heavily choreographed, and even the often unusually effective drone and synth work can’t bridge the chasm that she places between herself and her audience. Oddly enough though, for as much as the opening track keeps us at an arm’s length, the follow-up track “Pre-Agriculture Languageless Culture” goes out of its way to be inclusive — well, as inclusive as these kind of droning acoustic rhythms can be. Twisting lo-fi (read: no-fi) guitars strums and arrhythmic synths around featureless vocals, she evokes scenes of distorted sand covered landscapes and of slowly decaying physical structures. Her interest in musical expression through dissonance is most obviously felt here as she almost unintelligibly sings about “purer realities without words or tongues,” which, despite the existence of (near indecipherable) lyrics, would serve as a suitable tagline for the whole album.
“Don’t Expect A Stradivarius” begins with moaning train whistles and curls of casually tossed off low-end synths, all confined within Nikolova’s heavily filtered and gender ambiguous vocals. A stark reminder of love among harsh reality, the last line “don’t expect perfect love” feels suitably raw among the cathedral echoes that paint a curiously devout portrait of her personal headspace. She seems to drop her guard a bit on “The Only One,” which could serve as an almost quaint acoustic excursion into the heartache of a dissolving relationship. Intimate confessions such as “I didn’t know what that mean then/I was too young” and “too young/to hold on/I learned in my destruction” offer brief and candid glimpses into a weary and burdened mind and are among the most affecting lyrics on the album. Featuring some of the most polished production here, “Following the Sound” could be mistaken for some crude lo-fi version of Dum Dum Girls, though the uneven and rough edges still keep the song shivering like some exposed nerve, despite its pop-centric melody and aspirations.
The album becomes rather jarring after this brief exploration of Teaadora’s tarnished pop tendencies, as “Uncertainty is Being” once again drags out the frayed guitars and non-existent vocal production work. It’s such a quick slide back into the calculated noise of the first couple of tracks that it jolts you away from any sort of emotional connection that might have formed from the previous songs. And in all honesty, her voice on this track becomes practically untenable, driving a wedge between the listener and herself. “Wake Up Call” manages to repair some of the damage but even the softly picked guitar and muffled dissonance can’t fully fix these partially severed ties. And then there’s “Abstaining Fever,” a seven minute spoken word piece that aspires to transcendence but only manages to raise the listener’s eyebrows. There is something to be said for this kind of direct artist/listener interaction, but aside from a few honest and deceptively simple prostrations (“I want you to know that my arm needs a bandage,” “I want you to know that my heart hurts”), this overly long series of non-linear associations begins to grow tired and unnecessary after about a minute.
While Virgin Forever does display streaks of occasional brilliance, there are — as often as not — missteps that counter these advances. And that’s what makes this album such a frustrating and fascinating listening experience. I’m not sure if Nikolova intends the music to repel and attract simultaneously, but there are no easy inroads to these songs and no clear answers to be found in its scattered narrative. What you do find is that these songs take on the emotional proclivities of the listener, magnified by 100 through the perceptively kaleidoscopic vision of Teaadora herself. Discussions of objectivity are decidedly moot. And while there are those who would say that this kind of performance art/intense emotional exploration is above criticism, how can there be interaction without thoughtful commentary? Nikolova knows that her music is not for everyone. She only asks asks that you look at it and hear it from all sides — hers, yours, and even the person sitting next to you. And while that may not always be grounds for a satisfying experience, it will generally make for a memorable one.