The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground


4.5
superb

Review

by Stephen Gore USER (43 Reviews)
February 4th, 2007 | 48 replies


Release Date: 1969 | Tracklist

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.

After Hours’ 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…



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Comments:Add a Comment 
Two-Headed Boy
February 4th 2007


4527 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

This is their best album by far.

Good work, I might add.

Kaleid
February 4th 2007


711 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Ta dude.
Most peeps do say that the debut is the best and if ya argue, you haven't got a clue. This just pips it to the post. It just has such a nice feeling. 'I'll Be Your Mirror' would have sat very well here

AnyColour74
February 4th 2007


1054 Comments


I need this.

Nice work.

MrKite
July 14th 2007


5020 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

I hope this grows one me. So far my favorites are Jesus and After Hours.

Two-Headed Boy
July 14th 2007


4527 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

This is their best album.

Kage
July 14th 2007


1172 Comments


This is clearly not their best album.

blackmilk
July 14th 2007


584 Comments


White Light/White Heat is.

MrKite
December 10th 2007


5020 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Naw, this is their best. I need to listen to White Light/White Heat again though. Haven't heard it in a while.

Electric City
Staff Reviewer
December 10th 2007


15743 Comments


If it's like VU&Nico, I don't think I'll be looking into it.

MrKite
December 10th 2007


5020 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

It's like VU&Nico without Nico. Also, much softer.

McP3000
December 10th 2007


3941 Comments


White Light/White heat is their worst (of the first four of course)

Kaleid
December 14th 2007


711 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

It's like this for me:

1. The Velvet Underground
2. The Velvet Underground and Nico
3. White Light/White Heat
4. Loaded

I like White Light/White Heat but it goes too gritty without being tremendously interesting (apart from Sister Ray). The s/t has it all, I reckon; Pale Blue Eyes, What Goes On, Murder Mystery, Candy SaysThis Message Edited On 12.14.07

IntrusiveGambler
June 26th 2011


2 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

The perfect thing about the Velvet Underground is that they have an album for whatever mood i'm in. Summer just started so i'm listening to Loaded non-stop right now. ask me in a month i might be listening to White Light/White Heat

TheVoiceAndTheSnake
November 22nd 2011


3663 Comments


Venus In Furs

Collis
March 21st 2012


454 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Big fan of the album but I cannot stand Murder Mystery.

fuckthatnoise
April 13th 2012


1479 Comments


5ing this. took a while for me to really like it at the same level as their previous 2 albums, but yeah, this is pretty much flawless.

patrickfannon
July 3rd 2012


886 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Pale Blue Eyes is like a fall day at sunset when you were 8 years old; eternally perfect.

YankeeDudel
February 11th 2013


9313 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

oh man

Digging: Land Of Kush - Against The Day

ViperAces
June 2nd 2013


12506 Comments


what goes oooooooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn

Blackbelt54
August 11th 2013


4276 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

why have I not listened to this earlier, I like it substantially more than Nico and WLWH



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