Review Summary: Getting the balance just about right, the Velvets go from strength to strength on their most subtly brilliant album
Anyone 'into' the Velvets has to acknowledge that they were, like me, blown away by their debut with the robotic Nico. The combination of Lou Reed’s superior lyrics and melodies coupled with John Cale’s mastery of the avant-garde resulted in an all-time classic album that is rightly cited as an inspiration to all alternative rock acts. It towered over the commercially-inclined ‘Loaded
’. It out-tuned the crackling rasps of ‘White Light White Heat
’. It was supposed to be career-defining. It had John Cale as a contributor. Who would have thought they would manage an album like that again?
This self-titled third album is something of a peaceful, focused comedown from the previous one. You’ll find no ‘Sister Ray
’ here. Instead, Reed offers us some of the best lyrics of his career (and that includes his solo work). This change in direction from blasts of static to languid ballads is signalled in the album opener, ‘Candy Says
’ (about a transsexual - Reed is never less that subversive), and is helped along by a lilting guitar in the background. Cale’s replacement, Doug Yule, supplies the affecting vocals, and it’s clear from the sound of this album that Reed found working with him to be far more comfortable. Maybe you could be cynical and argue that the seeds of Lou Reed’s solo career were sown here, but it’s clear that the group as a whole were functioning a lot better.
The subtle majesty of ‘Pale Blue Eyes
’ is the first of two major highpoints (though the lack of any clear stand-out defining track is why I rate this album so highly) and is a drifting triumph of lyrical simplicity/brilliance mixed with heartfelt vocals and effective guitar and tambourine, ‘If I could make the world as pure/ And strange as what I see/ I’d put you in the mirror/ I put in front of me
’. You could sing it to a baby, your beloved, anything that sounds anywhere near as innocent and beautiful as this track does. A pure, simple, affecting song.
But what’s this? A song called ‘Jesus
’ by The Velvet Underground!? That same band that wrote so comfortably about drugs, sexuality and death songs from black angels? Rather strange, admittedly, and maybe that adds bias, but it isn’t a bad track by any means, with even simpler lyrics than ‘Pale Blue Eyes
’. It’s just unexpected - maybe the meaning is ironical? Anyway, it’s still a good track, but not up the standard of the other ballads here. Best sung round a campfire in Montana. Not slap-bang in the middle of a VU album.
Don’t, however, take this album to be a monotonous trail of sentimental beauty/mushiness. The Velvets could still rock, and they prove it with gritty songs like ‘Beginning To See The Light
’ and ‘What Goes On
’. The former contains raucous choruses, chugging tempos, guitar twangs and even a bit of yelping, screeching and yodelling, while the latter is undeniably my favourite of the lot. It’s nothing but a simple alt/rock song with a massive rhythm guitar section at the end, but it’s just done so well…
Mid-tempo numbers bridge the gaps between these touching slowies and their more rockin’ compadres. None are bad; some have the same simplistic lyrics (‘That’s The Story Of My Life
’) that lend effectiveness rather than reducing it; but the real surprise to anyone missing Cale’s influence is in the albums’ penultimate moment, ‘The Murder Mystery
’. My word. A near nine minute marathon, it avoids the over-indulgence of ‘Sister Ray
’ but keeps the alternative, arty, subversive feel. Very much a song of two halves, with tribal-like drums and rhythmic guitar, interrupted with an organ, moody plucking, and lil’ Moe Tucker’s vocals adding a gauche innocence to an otherwise darkly powerful track. But it’s very literally a song of two halves; adjust the balance on your speakers to reveal the lyrics in a clearer form. Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker take the left speaker, Reed and Yule the right. There must surely only be a handful of people in the world who know every word of this disturbingly ominous track; well was it titled, ‘The Murder Mystery
’. Also, it arrives at a great place on the album; the slowish, simple start may have convinced the VU’s more ardent fans that they had forgotten all about John Cale’s experimental craft.
’ wraps it all up, and is the antithesis of the long, ultra-complex ‘The Murder Mystery
’. Reed gave this song to Tucker to sing because he claimed it was too pure for him to handle (good move). She definitely imbues this old-fashioned song with a child-like innocence; she sounds about ten years old! She’s also a little out of tune, and the guitar couldn’t be simpler; yet for those reasons it remains a great song. The feeling that comes across is in stark contrast to the lyrics, about withdrawal (Love? Drugs?) and denial of true feelings ‘All the people are dancing and they’re having such fun/ I wish it could happen to me/ But if you close the door/ I’ll never have to see the day again
At this point, you’re probably expecting a ‘better or worse than the debut’ comment. I can’t answer that - it’s a question of personal taste. What I can
say is that this is a far more self-assured and confident album. A little more polished, a little less raw. Reed’s lyrics are at a peak, all members seem to be really up for it, and they even show that they can dish up arty experimentation without Cale or compromising the simplicity of their songs. Under pressure from their label to become more mainstream, the group unfortunately wouldn’t last much longer. The sad thing is that there was still much potential for them. It remains my favourite VU album, and should be an essential purchase for any musician who wants a guide to getting the balance between experimentation and accessibility just
right. Or anyone who’s a sucker for rhythm guitar…