Review Summary: "Wine in the morning and some breakfast at night / Well, I'm beginning to see the light"
The Velvet Underground are the definition of cool. In fact, if you go into a dictionary and you look up the word cool, you're gonna see a picture of Lou Reed smoking a cigar (coincidentally my current profile picture) underneath 'The Velvet Underground'. His swagger and the band's experimental and mind-bending tricks made them a distinctively cool band, and now it's incredibly cool to cite them and name-drop 'em. But what's the coolest part of The Velvet Underground?
The band's coolest attribute is that they have three consecutively great albums which all laid down the groundwork for three substantially different sub-genres of alternative music. Their debut basically established the New York art rock scene and foreshadowed the broad movement of avant-garde music with pop sensibilities and artistic meanings. Their sophomore release White Light / White Heat
took the rampant and noisy garage rock of their debut and blared it to the max, foreshadowing artists like Sonic Youth and Pere Ubu and their warped experimentation via improvisation. And their third release and second self-titled album? A bit overlooked as far as the Velvets go, but this is the first real indie rock album-and certainly the first indie folk album-and doesn't get highlighted nearly as much. Tracks like the lush opener "Candy Says", the tear-jerking "Pale Blue Eyes", and the genuinely cute "After Hours" laid the groundwork for indie and avant-folk with art rock sensibilities. Still, it's an experimental album (see: "The Murder Mystery"), but definitely laid-back, mellow, and the prettiest and easiest to a love-oriented album they ever got (yes, I know Loaded
is a pop album).
Another thing that I don't see mentioned much is how soulful the whole album is. Their first two albums emphasized Lou's swagger, which is dominant in most tracks, especially "Waiting for the Man", "Sister Ray", and "Heroin" (the last few minutes, at least), but most of the lush ballads were left to Nico, who was fine and all, and then their sophomore release lacked any real ballads (if you really consider "Here She Comes Now" to be one...). And their music definitely wasn't soulless-both Lou and Nico comprehensively described the urban life on New York that the media and most musicians hesitated to cover, and Lou's swagger certainly carries emotion, but The Velvet Underground's third record draws me in as an inviting and bittersweet record like no other. Is there a better folk song at conveying raw and unfiltered emotions than "Pale Blue Eyes"? Even Bob Dylan, one of my favorite artists of all time, wasn't this effective. What about "Jesus", a beautiful ballad that, once again, expresses raw emotions with sentimental lyrics in a genuinely pretty matter? Or even "After Hours", which is cool enough that even my dad listens to it? The following two passages are some of my favorites of all time, but even outside of that, is there better expression of solitude and sentimental attitudes?
"All the people are dancing and they're having such fun
I wish it could happen to me"
"Oh, someday I know someone will look into my eyes
And say hello... you're my very special one"
How powerful of a song from the band's most overlooked artist, Maureen Tucker, showing that she's more than just a damn drummer. And hey, while the folk ballads are the album's strongest and most re-playable bits, the album still rocks like their past two-just without all the distortion. "Beginning To See The Light", coming right after the religious ballad "Jesus", rocks hard with steady and tight rhythms, and Lou's vocals are filled with swagger and a genuine attitude towards music. Coming after two religiously-inspired songs is "I'm Set Free", which also strongly flaunts its religious undertones, and it also rocks simply but with a lot of force. It's slower and more refined, but still as powerful as ever. It even has a guitar solo that isn't loaded with distortion! "What Goes On", coming much earlier in the album, almost hints at country with Lou's vocals, and it has greatly memorable lines like "I think that I am upside down"
. There's a good deal of diversity among the album and no song sounds like the other, and each song is truly special.
I'm not sure if it's their greatest work, but I wouldn't rush to argue with someone who proclaimed it to be their greatest. Another cool part about The Velvet Underground's classic trilogy of albums is that because how musically and structurally diverse they are, there are certain moments suited more for certain albums. Their debut is raunchy and dirty, and is probably a good album to walk around in the city and/or do heroin to. White Light / White Heat
is great for when you're pissed off at everything and need raw, unfiltered noise to guide you in the right or wrong direction, and songs like "Sister Ray" are also surprisingly great when you're lifting (at least in my experiences). In contrast, this album is a lovely nocturnal album, but its sentimental lyrics and lush deliveries are great for those days of longing and depression, while also being much more uplifting and soulful than their past work (as much as I love "Heroin"-the song, not the narcotic-it's not the most hopeful song you can find). Whether I prefer their debut or this album depends on my mood and how my day was, but this definitely has a load of replay value because it's not as highly-acclaimed and canonized as their first two. But hell, these songs are all very memorable and unique, and there are more one-liners that get stuck in my head that there should be-that's a good indication of a good album.