Given that they were the recipients of Andy Warhol's patronage, the Velvet Underground were bound to be a rather experimental, artistically adventurous band, walking the fine line between conventional rock music and outright avant-garde musical enterprises. Thus it's unsurprising that the band, led by Lou Reed, pushed the envelope of what was deemed acceptable musical conduct further than any of their predecessors, paving the way for a more radical breed of rock band on both the musical and lyrical fronts.
Lyrically it would be hard for a rock band to be more daring; in a decidedly more conservative, puritanical climate Lou Reed penned lyrics dealing with everything from drug addiction to sadomasochism to homosexuality, defying his era's standards for what constituted appropriate content in rock music. In an epoch when lyrical conformity revolved around trite love songs and banal sentimentality the Velvet Underground eschewed these trends and presented raw, powerful visions of decadence and moral deviance, thus securing their place in rock history as pioneers of a risky new approach to rock music, redefining the very nature of the medium itself.
The Velvet Underground's audacity didn't only manifest itself in the lyrical department, however; their music was often just as unorthodox, veering from haunting minimalism to fare incorporating Eastern influences to emulations of a more Germanic style to innovative experiments with musical dissonance. The group was never content to simply follow trends, rather blazing a unique trail for themselves, never backing away from artistic risks that were apt to alienate a more conventional audience.
While the group's daring was commendable it didn't always result in a stellar final product. Tracks like the feedback drenched European Son and the abrasive The Black Angel's Death Song are exercises in head splitting discord, experimental for the sake of being experimental while wholly bereft of any artistic merit. Little more than headache inducing aural ordeals, these tracks demonstrate the inherent danger of rampant experimentation, wherein every few successes will invariably be accompanied by an egregious failure.
Fortunately nearly every other track is a monumental success. While her voice is anathema to some, Nico's guest vocals are a huge asset for the group, as she deftly handles her spotlights on tracks like Femme Fatale, All Tomorrow's Parties and I'll Be Your Mirror. Her cold German manner imbues those songs with an exotic touch that certainly adds to the proceedings, and while some will inevitably bemoan the fact that Lou Reed doesn't sing every single song the truth is that Nico's guest spots are always welcome, adding an extra dimension to the album.
Which isn't to say that Lou Reed isn't brilliant as well; his vocals fit the material perfectly and, while he's hardly a virtuoso in that area, his guitarwork is great as well, focusing more on an idiosyncratic and experimental style than traditional technical perfection.
What truly makes the album, however, is his exceptional gift for songwriting. Aside from the debacles that are The Black Angel's Death Song and European Son his compositions are uniformly strong, with highlights including the opener Sunday Morning, with its a mixture of a soothing dreamlike quality and an ever present subtle menace, the driving rocker I'm Waiting For The Man with Lou Reed patiently awaiting his dealer, the haunting tale of sadomasochism Venus In Furs, the moving ode to drug addiction Heroin, the primitive but fun rocker Run Run Run, the precursor to Reed's Vicious There She Goes Again, the stately All Tomorrow's Parties, the beautiful I'll Be Your Mirror and the classic Femme Fatale.
Despite its flaws, the truth is that for an album with its level of ambition and experimentation it's quite consistent, with a few misfires being unavoidable given the circumstances. The Velvet Underground & Nico manages to be highly compelling, rewarding art rock without too much grating pretentiousness or self-importance. Lou Reed was an incredible songwriter right from the start, and this songwriting functions as a solid foundation for the group's more experimental tendencies.
Thus the album is a stellar debut, an excellent affair that depicts all of the group's strengths right from the start (though many of their flaws as well). Innovative, well written and well performed, The Velvet Underground & Nico is a highly accomplished outing that, save a few lapses of good taste, remains enjoyable and engrossing all the way through.
There are certain albums that will perpetually generate violent debates for as long as they're in print, inaccessible records that must be beloved by individual listeners for them to be eligible for initiation into the ranks of hardcore fans of the group. This dubious distinction can be applied to myriad albums, from Trout Mask Replica to Pink Moon, a disparate array of LPs irrevocably consigned to the fate of being mired in controversy.
For the Velvet Underground, this honor falls to the album White Light/White Heat, a record revered by hardcore fans of the group and loathed by virtually everyone else. Personally I fall under the latter category, though it is clear that the album is not wholly without merit.
The opening title track is a deserved classic, perhaps in part because it's easily the most accessible song on the album. A driving rocker in the vein of I'm Waiting For The Man, it's not one of the band's very best numbers but it's certainly the best cut on the album.
Elsewhere Lady Godiva's Operation is an intriguing listen, while Here She Comes Now, on an album full of sonic ugliness, is the lone instance of true beauty on the record, resulting in a track that, while decent on its own, seems vastly superior within the context of the LP.
The rest of the album, however, has justifiably incurred the animosity of most listeners. The Gift, a story orated (not sung) by John Cale with a modicum of static, rudimentary instrumental backing, is certainly entertaining the first time, as it's a clever enough anecdote, but on subsequent listens it's sheer torture, as an audience can only be subjected to a story, no matter how clever, so many times before longing to never hear it again.
I Heard Her Call My Name recalls the more dissonant tracks on the group's debut, a collage of deafening feedback, discordant instrumentation that does little but cultivate a headache inducing level of cacophony. A reasonably solid melody may indeed exist, but it's obstructed by layers of noxious sound that no hooks could ever hope to penetrate.
The main culprit, however, is the seventeen and a half minute centerpiece of the album, Sister Ray. There are actually moments of good music interspersed throughout the song, but they're few and far between and certainly can't salvage the track from its status as a tedious, head splitting ordeal. The track is mercilessly extended far beyond an appropriate runtime, filled with streaks with nothing the least bit interesting transpiring that last multiple minutes each. The song is a sacred document for hardcore Velvet Underground fans, but this seems akin to masochism, as there's precious little in the track that truly merits one's attention.
Thus White Light/White Heat is a consummately frustrating listen. The album certainly has its moments, particularly the title track, but nevertheless far too much of the record is occupied by self-indulgent experimentation that centers around inflicting whatever particular sound seems interesting to the band at any given moment on the listener.
While a whole half of the tracks on the album are pretty good, this is a misleading statistic, as the superior half takes up around ten minutes while the other half has an approximate runtime of thirty minutes. Ergo it's very difficult to recommend an album this erratic; while most filler tends to be bland and nondescript, the filler on White Light/White Heat is anything but; on the contrary, it's filler of the most offensive kind, abusing the listener as opposed to simply boring them.
This assessment may seem like heresy to hardcore Velvet Underground fans, but for me it's an inescapable conclusion. I like the band very much, but I still have trouble enduring 'epics' like Sister Ray, songs that embody the very worst traits of the group. White Light/White Heat features all the worst tendencies depicted on their debut, with the band being incapable of keeping them in check and balancing them with stronger fare as they had on their first album. What was isolated and contained in a two song block on their outing with Nico runs rampant across the record here, sabotaging the group as they succumb to their worst excesses.
Shortly after the completion of White Light/White Heat viola player and connoisseur of all things artsy and sonically daring John Cale left the band, replaced by, of all people, infamous popster Doug Yule (though he didn't earn his brand of infamy until he, in the eyes of many a Velvet Underground fan, led the band astray).
The band's eponymous album was indeed the most accessible of their original three offerings, and while Yule was certainly a far more mainstream influence than the departing Cale I'd be more inclined to blame this trend on the latter's absence than to treat it as a byproduct of the former's insidious pop tendencies, especially given that their self-titled outing was the occasion when Lou Reed assumed absolute control over the creative direction of the band.
While he granted Yule and even Tucker vocal spotlights Reed receives sole credit for penning each track, asserting his dominance on the songwriting front after being more malleable on prior outings wherein he'd permit the likes of Cale to occasionally take partial credit for some of the creative process.
It's not that the album is bereft of the band's once ubiquitous experimental disposition; there is the obligatory avant-garde epic The Murder Mystery, their eponymous record's equivalent of European Son and Sister Ray. Fortunately, however, the song is built around an actual melody complete with actual vocal hooks, differentiating it from their prior experimental fare wherein they tended to eschew coherent and listenable music in favor of cacophony and discord. The Murder Mystery does, unfortunately, degenerate into headache inducing dissonance for its coda, but this section is brief enough that it can be overlooked in favor of the track's merits.
The Murder Mystery is hardly indicative of the general sound of the album, however; The Velvet Underground is predominantly an achingly beautiful, emotionally transparent experience, a profoundly moving listen that's all the more emotive for its stripped down minimalism.
There are certainly exceptions to this paradigm, like the aforementioned experimental behemoth The Murder Mystery, the decadent throwback to their earlier material Some Kinda Love, the rockers What Goes On and Beginning To See The Light and the more lightweight That's The Story Of My Life and After Hours, the latter of which is notable for featuring Tucker on lead vocals (a questionable choice given her inadequacies in the department, though eventually her amateurish vocals become charming and endearing) in what's ultimately the ideal closer after the emotionally exhausting experience that is the album.
The remainder of the album, however, boasts far less levity than the other numbers. Candy Says is a beautiful, heart-wrenching ballad elevated to the status of a catharsis inducing experience by Yule's tender, vulnerable vocals. Reed could doubtlessly have handled the track quite well, especially given that he wrote the song himself, but allocating the responsibility to Yule was a wise decision as the fragility of his vocal treatment certainly compounds its already pronounced potency.
Nearly every track borders on catharsis, however; Pale Blue Eyes is gorgeous, a ballad made all the more moving by its minimalism, and its follow up, the deeply emotionally penetrative Jesus, manages to be even more stripped down and effective, capturing a despairing beauty that's rarely been duplicated in the history of rock and roll music.
Elsewhere I'm Set Free continues the trend of evocative minimalistic ballads in a track that may not be on par with the previously mentioned content but still carries a lot of emotional heft to it, albeit in a slightly diluted fashion that can largely be attributed to it arriving after the listener's already been worn down by the previous emotional tour de forces.
Ultimately, The Velvet Underground, unlike the band's prior fare, is an album where everything works, devoid of the misfires that plagued their first two efforts. This doesn't necessarily make the album better than their debut, as there's more to quality than consistency, but their eponymous album is still an immaculate experience, filled with consummately moving ballads, highly entertaining, catchy rockers and the occasional well implemented instance of experimentation.
In some respects the album sounds closer to Lou Reed's solo career than to the first two Velvet Underground projects, which is natural given the abrupt departure of the other primary creative force in the group, John Cale. This isn't a liability, however, as Reed's solo career is brilliant in its own right, and the album's more of a gradual transition rather than sudden shift into his solo territory. Enough of the classic Velvet Underground style is preserved to prevent it from coming off as a betrayal of the group's formula, and truth be told both the debut and sophomore effort were already, at heart, Lou Reed releases. Thus, rather than be dismissed as a sellout of the group's values or some nefarious commercialization of their sound (which it couldn't be further from) the album should be regarded as a great companion piece to The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White Heat, with each record representing a different side of a truly multifaceted rock outfit.
While the band had lost a considerable amount of their experimental edge on their self-titled outing, they'd managed to retain much of their unique, idiosyncratic personality, preserving the spirit that had animated the Velvet Underground since the group's inception. From their trademark decadence on tracks like Some Kinda Love to their intimate, minimalistic confessions on numbers like Candy Says to their avant-garde tendencies on songs like The Murder Mystery many of the staples of the Velvet Underground had remained intact, fluidly translated into the context of their eponymous release. The loss of Cale had certainly hurt the band, but they proved that they were still capable of producing material that was on par with their earlier work, both stylistically and qualitatively.
Unfortunately, this was not the case of Loaded, an album that profoundly lacks nearly everything that had made the group compelling and unique, eschewing their distinctive voice in favor of embracing conformity by crafting a record nearly wholly composed of conventional rockers and ballads.
This situation becomes apparent from the first notes of the album, as Loaded opens with Doug Yule's composition Who Loves The Sun, a trite, sappy and banal pop song that's antithetical to nearly everything the group had stood for. Bereft of any edginess or irony, the song is simply mainstream pop at its most pedestrian, with no pretensions toward any degree of depth, originality or irreverence to redeem it. Never before had a Velvet Underground album featured content of that nature, and its presence on Loaded is an unmistakable sign of how transformed the group had become after the loss of Cale, the addition of Yule and the onset of Reed's newfound commercial aspirations. Even in a more appropriate context the song would have been noxious, while on a Velvet Underground album it's completely unforgivable.
While there are no other moments of comparable inanity, most of the rest of the material is simply decent, rock songs and ballads that are competent enough but fail to betray the band's unique persona and ultimately barely register.
While Lou Reed had always been reliable as a songwriter, liberally distributing hooks across his handiwork, the band's melodies had always been ancillary to their style, image and atmospherics; thus, when stripped of those aspects of their identity they're left with little to differentiate them from any other contemporaneous rock outfits, a development that's further exacerbated by Reed's below par songwriting on Loaded. Truth be told, without the style and shock value of their debut, the experimental nature of White Light/White Heat or the emotional potency of their eponymous third outing the band is condemned to overall mediocrity, transfigured into nothing more than just another faceless rock band.
The group simply play it safe on Loaded, abstaining from experimentation or artsy enterprises. Occasionally they'll attempt to capture the emotionality of their previous record, particularly on the closer Oh! Sweet Nuthin,' but invariably rather than moving these songs sound forced and artificial, devoid of the catharsis that nearly every track on their third album offered.
Thus Loaded is a severe letdown, an unworthy swansong for a group as once gifted as the Velvet Underground. Few of the tracks are bad, and songs like Sweet Jane and Rock & Roll are decent enough, but with none of their edginess or originality there's precious little to distinguish them from any other competent conventional rock group. The band was capable of far more than what's presented here, making this deterioration all the more tragic.
The Velvet Underground had assumed a prominent place in the pantheon of rock music, and the brevity of their career simply contributed to their mystique. While Reed's subsequent solo work was widely acclaimed it wasn't quite enough to sate the record buying public's hunger for more Velvet Underground material, leading to a climate that was highly conducive toward the success of VU, the group's first rarities collection and first appearance in over a decade.
Predictably enough, given the band's sacrosanct status amongst rock critics, VU was the recipient of myriad accolades, hailed as the long lost fifth album from the group. And that, in effect, is what the album is; however, it's a fifth album that's a natural progression from their fourth album, Loaded, and thus shares many of the vices inherent to the particular record.
While there's some content culled from sessions prior to Yule's introduction into the band, some even featuring John Cale, the album is predominantly composed of material that was intended for their phantom fifth album, and this must be taken into account when assessing the record. While the album's largely comprised of stripped down demos it, by and large, doesn't hearken back to the brand of minimalism employed on the likes of their eponymous outing; rather, it sounds like under-produced variations of the comparatively generic rock showcased on Loaded, a prospect that won't be terribly attractive to those who scoffed at the alleged sellout that their swansong constituted in their eyes.
The most interesting material is the content that dates back to Cale's tenure in the band, with highlights from his stay including tracks like the beautiful Stephanie Says, which includes stellar string arrangements implemented by the experimental eccentric himself.
Much like the material from Loaded, the prospective additions to the ill fated fifth album are uniformly inoffensive, perfectly adequate songs that can be thoroughly enjoyed if one is willing to clear one's mind of what a true Velvet Underground album should sound like. On VU, however, this situation is exacerbated by a new liability, namely that superior versions of many of these songs were included on Lou Reed's early solo fare. Many will insist that these half-finished variations are preferable to Reed's more fleshed out renditions, but truth be told the remakes on the likes of his eponymous debut and Transformer are hardly over-produced; rather, they're handled as they would have been handled had their fifth album ever been recorded. They're all Reed's compositions, and he was keenly aware of the methods to bring out the best from his handiwork.
The sound quality of the demos is decent enough, and the rawness of the music can be an asset on occasion, but the demos are less minimalistic in a Knopfler-esque-haunting-artistic way than they're minimalistic in a we-haven't-yet-put-the-finishing-touches-on-the-record-yet way. There's a profound difference between intentional, artistic minimalism and unintentional poor production, a crucial disparity that VU illustrates quite well.
Ultimately, while flawed, VU is an essential purchase for any Velvet Underground fan. The sound quality isn't ideal, the material that overlaps with Reed's solo career can't hope to measure up to their subsequent incarnations and the exclusive material is, for the most part, decent at best. It is, however, the best gift a Velvet Underground fan could hope for, and the closest thing to a true fifth album that the group will ever have.