For an album from 1987, Opal’s Happy Nightmare Baby does not have a typical album cover. The sparse black-and-white look harkens more to Blue Note‘s glory days, or even to abstract covers from the ’50s. In fact, the sound of the record itself is more akin to the sounds of that era as well, with a definite nod to the hazy, laid-back half of the college radio sound. It might be notable to know that primary guitarist and songwriter David Roback was a strong player in the Paisley Underground scene and that he would form Mazzy Star out of the ashes of Opal after a mid-tour breakup.
On the whole, Happy Nightmare Baby embodies a sort of vague and uneasy romance. Disembodied metaphors float their way in and out of wah-wah-ed guitars and bleary organ lines. The glamour of the music is immediately apparent as “Rocket Machine” crunches onscene with a riff that could make Marc Bolan‘s ears perk up from beyond the grave. Still, glitzy sleaze isn’t the main argument of the record. Instead, it’s the artwork that tells the story.
On an off-white background, the band’s two members pose their faux-candid poses. Kendra Smith lounges front and center looking like a Langian damsel draped over her seat. Roback himself embodies the antithetical male, looking wiry and forlorn and almost mirroring the shadowy feel of his female counterpart. All the while, the focus is put on Smith’s frail portrait, with Roback’s image offset to the right to create asymmetry within a geometric arrangement. The idea is that this is music stripped down to a simple sound, but not without its kinks. It may be easy on the eyes, but it’s not quite so easy to digest the bizarre and nightmarish imagery.
If you were to think of HNB as a live show, “Rocket Machine” would cue the lights, and “Magick Power” would signal the fog machine. Everything about this track, from the warble of the omnipresent organ to the mantra-like melody, invoke an otherworldly ritual. The lyrics themselves are composed of cryptic 3-word phrases and pile on a claustrophobic aura. And in the time it takes to reach the end of the song, you feel slightly changed, yet can’t remember what you were doing for the last six minutes.
As the most accessible of the album’s songs, the title track is buried deep into Side B, as if to further the mystery of the record. Maybe it would’ve been too easy to start off with a song whose first few lines declare, “Happy nightmare baby/’cause you’re all mine.” Regardless, the rhythm and melody of the track demonstrate the idea of freewheeling off the deep end – going from sweetheart to stalker in the blink of an eye. In fact, the rhythm section pulses along as if to mimic a footrace from tree to tree, darting to catch a glimpse through a window, just in time for the monotone monologue of the verses.
Happy Nightmare Baby, then, is like a seance of sorts – only instead of a departed loved one, it’s for a living breathing lover (former, future, or unaware). It takes on the qualities of a romance removed: stark and forlorn, with a touch of derangement. The album artwork shows the latter in the absence of joy or color or even a sincere iteration of anguish. It’s hollow through and through.
Album: Happy Nightmare Baby
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)