The magic of a great record sleeve should never be underestimated. Who could forget Prince astride his Purple dream machine, cockily posing for his disciples whilst the heaving chest of foxy Apollonia awaits in the wings? Or Iggy Pop grinning like he’s freshly lobotomised on the cover of Lust For Life? Or Gaga’s sneering visage drunkenly photoshopped onto the wings of a motorbike by the Office Junior? All covers that dared you to only imagine the mysterious mojo held within. The cover of Nicole Atkins’ Mondo Amore promises such supernatural secrets. A smoky-eyed Nicole, dressed to kill in a LBD, draped over a distracted older gent whose shirtless chest is inscribed with, amongst other mysteries, the legend “SENIOR”. This silver survivor looks like a cross between butch, bushy actor Sam Elliott and that malevolent maniac from Twin Peaks known only as “Bob”. Either way, he looks like he may’ve escaped a maximum security prison, so we probably shouldn’t ask too many questions. But when faced with such a wondrously iconic cover, there’s only one thing worth pondering anyway, “Oh Lord, let the music be as fine as that darn sleeve”.
Mondo Amore does, mostly, live up to those great expectations promised by its cryptic packaging. On further investigation, it seems if it weren’t for bad luck, Atkins would’ve had no luck at all. Having severed ties with “The Man” (Columbia Records, who released Atkin’s début Neptune City), “Her Man” (one long-term relationship flatlined during its creation), and “The Gang” (backing band “The Sea” white-flagged on day one of Mondo’s recording), things seemed, well, cursed. Her loss is Mondo’s gain as, luckily for us, Atkins is both a fighter and a lover, and Amore is the sound of one soul frantically fighting for a knockout. Forty minutes of kicking, screaming, bawling, and occasionally begging. Rather selfishly, it’s a blast to listen to.
What strikes most about Mondo Amore is the crafted songwriting. It’s classic American songbook. Carole King meets Loretta Lynn. Take the summery rock ‘n’ soul of “Cry Cry Cry”, which soothes like Lucinda Williams preaching Reverend Al Green. Melodic and timeless but with a sassy, stinging woman’s wit. Atkins has assembled a tight new crew and pushes each instrument high into each mix, giving a live, ragged, raucous feel to the album. These songs may be predominantly about love as battlefield, but the sharp, sincere lyrics save them from cliché or mawkishness. “My pain could learn to play the violin / But it might not bring you back”, sobs Atkins on the lonesome “Hotel Plaster”, elevating these closing time laments into something more memorable.
Some of the early tracks reveal a burnin’ punk spirit behind the melodic traditionalist. The possessed rush of “You Come To Me” could be a Stooges cover with its spiralling riffs, powerhouse drummin’, loco honky tonk keys, and banshee vocals, which channel the uninhibited abandon of Patti Smith. “YOU! COME! TO ME-YA!”, Atkins yells. It’s an artist freed from the chains of personal history and expectation. “My Baby Don’t Lie” is similarly fiery. A Southern fried country stomp showered in spit ‘n’ sawdust and blistered raw vocals. It’s BA – that’s Bad Atkins – simmering on her porch and polishing her knuckle dusters menacingly, “If she’s keeps on spreading rumours / Then that bitch is gonna have to die / My baby don’t lie”. The fact that she briefly lowers her shotgun for an enchanting string waltz mid song only adds extra “Badass” points.
However, Atkins saves the last act for sorrow. A swell of passionate “Look, I’m on my knees; throw me a frickin’ bone here” torchsongs. “War Is Hell” (featuring My Morning Jacket’s Jim James) is beautiful, sultry, and as smoothly cut as velvet and silk. Atkins’ feral side put to bed to be replaced by Dusty in Memphis vulnerability, “Mother will I explode? / War is hell / Our civil one”. There’s a real sense of “together to the grave” to these latter songs. “Heavy Boots” echoes the earthy, bloody romanticism of Neko Case: “What I wouldn’t do to wear your heavy boots”. It’s Atkin’s the martyr. Give me your darkness, I’ll keep it with mine. “The warriors are waiting / They’re no match for me”. Brooding, bruised and a teeny bit chilling. As she admits in her bio, “It’s so much love…it’s borderline obsessive”. The optimistic, regal “This Is For Love” gets the gold, though. It’s U2’s divine “One Tree Hill” reimagined by Burt Bacharach through a lush Moonshine haze. When Atkin’s victoriously cries “I wanna walk some new country / I wanna talk some new language”, it’s hard not to stand up, salute, and holler back “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!”
Atkins and her army—now tellingly rechristened The Black Sea—play as if it’s the last night on earth, signing off with a bang (not a whimper) on “The Tower”. “Seems like the final day you’ll ever come my way / So forgive me if I hold on tight”. Olympian guitar riffery with one boot firmly on the amp, blustering drums like breakin’ waves, and much a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ from a “you’ll-never-take-me-alive!” Atkins. Subtle? Nah. It’s an ending Meat Loaf would reject as “a bit melodramatic”.
The quality control only dips briefly. The underfed “You Were The Devil” could be the themetune to a cable TV James Bond rip-off shot in Mexico, whilst lead single “Vultures” is all mouth and no trousers. It whips up death ‘n’ disease Gothic country noir amid an Avian apocalypse but left my feathers distinctly unruffled.
Mondo Amore is a feverish but richly rewarding listen, borne of a fierce, tempestuous talent. It’s the sound of someone refusing to roll over and die, a soul exorcising its demons whilst kicking for dear life. Every song feels like a last shot, a last gasp for air, the last dance before war. Even if it does occasionally feel akin to being beaten across the face with a frying pan Tom & Jerry style, Amore does leave a lasting impression of “YES!” So should you stumble across Mondo Amore in your local record store, trust your heart. The old adage says never judge a book by its cover, but hey, this is rock n’ roll, and we do things differently around here. Mondo deserves amore.