The shores of New Jersey are littered, quite literally, with small towns whose better days are far in the past. They're towns that have been written about, and sung over; towns that have been mythologized and idealized; and they are the towns that 28-year-old musician Nicole Atkins - a native of Neptune City, located a stones throw from fabled Asbury Park - was born and raised in.
They can be places steeped in their own history, buried under the sense of their own pasts. Places of hey-days and what-once-was. And it's that sense of something lost, and of what perhaps should have been, and what might be, that permeates Atkins's debut, Neptune City.
"Neptune City is just this old place," Nicole says. "There was this glory time, way back when, that I never experienced, but that you cannot escape if you live there. Everyone talks about. They almost yearn for it, but I never experienced it. So maybe this album is my attempt to build something new on top of all that."
The record calls to mind Roy Orbison if he were a woman; the bleak visions of Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen; the darkly mysterious girl group-on-acid musings of Julee Cruise and Lynch composer Angelo Badalamenti; the sorrow of Patsy Cline, the '60s experimentation of Love and Nuggets; all with a redeeming sense of hope amidst the emotional wreckage that is all Nicole.
Over everything, Atkins brings a painterly quality to her music, fitting for a woman who studied illustration while at UNC Charlotte, and still has her own mural business. Her songs are aural paintings, mixing and matching colors and sounds.
"That's why I have such a hard time playing solo these days," says Nicole, who plied her trade in hundreds of bars North Carolina, New York, and New Jersey before attracting the attention of a major entertainment attorney, who helped her get signed. "When I write a song, I think about all the different layers that will go on top of it."
In the end, Neptune City comes across as a restoration project in a way, an attempt to build something new on something old. There's an acute subtlety to the art of restoration. Do it wrong and you're simply cribbing the past. Do it right and you're actually, in a profound way, carrying it forward into today. And that's what Neptune City accomplishes. It brings its past with it, carries its heart on its sleeve, and strides hopefully into a better day it can hardly imagine, but hopes will be there nonetheless.
Official website: nicoleatkins.com