Take this album at face value. If you can.
If you can cut past forty five years of affectation, media and cultural baggage, of the ‘humungous-ified’ treatment that critics and fans alike have buried it in, you will find an album that still, even in 2012, drips with the barbed, dark intellect, expansive instrumental vision and a, comparing with the silliness of 1967 hippies who believed that sticking flowers in your hair, singing Bob Dylan songs and smoking endlessly would stop a war half a world away, completely bollocks-less intent.
A mountain of connotation has been built in honour of ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’. Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time claims its influence stretches as far and wide as glitter, punk, grunge and goth-in short, it’s one of the most influential alternative albums ever.
And you can hear this in several pieces: ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, ‘Run, Run, Run’ and ‘There She Goes Again’, with the tension abounding from the heavy jangle of the guitar work, are pre punk-rock straight out of the 1970s, a decade before its time. ‘Sunday Morning’ effortlessly creates a mood and breezy sound of a moment in time; it genuinely sounds like the slow, lazy sunshine crawling through your window while you’re still in bed at ten in the morning.
The grimy lyric matter is the album’s defining aspect. Spitting in the face of the ‘give peace a chance, summer of love!’ fare that was the norm of the day, Velvet Underground entail the stories of a heroin deal and addiction (‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, ‘Heroin’), a dangerous prostitute (‘Venus In Furs’), the life of a junkie (‘Run, Run, Run’) and, on the one song that they raise their vision out of downtown New York, communist crippled Russia (‘Black Angel’s Death Song’). In a way, it is easy to see how the ugly darkness could’ve failed on release: people just weren’t ready for it. In fact, given the escapist, conformist, candy-ass nature of modern pop, we aren’t ready for it now! Indeed, ‘Nico’ is not just an album that was ahead of the curve, it is an album that has stayed ahead of the curve.
Apart from the expansive lyric matter, the spiked intellect and arthouse composition of the music (determinedly) sets the album apart from the mainstream. The Indian influence of ‘Venus In Furs’, and the deliciously steady tempo, are masterstrokes of musicianship, Reed’s “Taste the whip...now plead for me” slowly, enticingly drawn out, is pitched perfectly against the tense instrumentals. Similarly, the dynamic tempo changes of the masterpiece ‘Heroin’, (so harrowing because it is so unflinchingly honest) symbolising the rush of addiction and then the deadening come down, is irresistibly effective. John Cale, with his (hopefully) deliberately screechy viola, finally turns in a fitting performance with his bone-scraping, nerve severing solo.
Alas, there are the negatives. And I’ve heard plenty of people claim that ‘Nico’s imperfections are all part of its appeal, but they are flaws nonetheless.
And the biggest is Nico herself. Apart from the fact that her asexual yawning contrasts jarringly with the perfect sound of Lou Reed’s no-fuss New York streetsman delivery, her range is limited to a few notes. Additionally every song that she performs the vocals on loses its life within the first minute thanks to her long, slow, shapeless delivery and drags wearily until coming to a stop. ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ are nothing more than lullabies, and there is little doubt that Reed would’ve been a preferable choice (Reed, in separating Nico from the band in the album’s title, seems to agree!)
Also, the final two tracks: ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’ and ‘European Son’, lack genuine musical inspiration. The deathly jig of ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’, whilst being an effective image of Eastern Europe, fights Reed’s admirable lyrics for attention, and the song falls into jarring dysfunction. ‘European Son’, with less than three minutes of lyrical/instrumental material, is stretched on and on and on to just under eight minutes, by which point the song has lost any chance of respectability. The sound is flat and unstructured, and it would take some pretty hardcore research to show any influence that is has had on future alternative genres.
Ultimately, ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ is a damn fine album: impressive vision and execution and a free flowing, artistic construction of thought. Yeah, it has its problems, but these flaws build a subtle, undeniable character that make the album as influential as it is.