Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Velvet Underground (1969)


(MGM)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The first casualties had been Nico and Andy Warhol, who abandoned the Velvets for good or ill. The next one was potentially crippling -- John Cale, fed up with Lou Reed and the universe, packed his bags and viola and vanished. Without Cale, however, Reed the songwriter suddenly came of age. His biggest ally in the world of noise and experimentation was gone and now he was a tunesmith. For the Velvets' third album, he becomes his own Dylan, spinning tales and melodies with the unerring sophistication of an obvious Goffin-King-Barry-Greenwich-Holland-Dozier-Holland student. Reed had, in fact, worked in a miniature Brill Building knockoff in the years before the VU came together -- his label had refused to release "Heroin."

Even with the angelic singing of Lou and new bassist Doug Yule, the soft, delicate production, and the overwhelming melodic appeal of the songs, it is Bob Dylan who comes to mind when we hear this, for the simple reason that all ten of these compositions have a life of their own; all seem monumental, legendary, and with good reason.

The album, in truth, couldn't be sonically more different from its predecessors. You can hear some traces of it in "Sunday Morning" and "I'll Be Your Mirror," but even they had a self-imposed iconic sheen that seems long gone in these bare, literate, and almost invariably sad songs. You could call it Simon & Garfunkel with a brain and heart and libido ("Some Kinda Love"), but even that doesn't even touch the fact of the matter, which is that for all its uncharacteristic qualities, it is the same band that brought forth "Heroin" and "Venus in Furs" from the pits of foul whatever. "I'm Set Free" may be straightforward and pretty, but it marks the same desperation and fury as "Heroin." It's just a good enough song to pass on its own merits and say what it means instead of leaping into you unguarded for attention. In the same sense, "The Murder Mystery" is as rock & roll as "Tutti Frutti" -- silly and senseless but fun and teasing. All this is irrelevant, though, because these are not only the best and most personal songs Lou Reed has ever written, they are the best, most assured performances in the Velvets' catalog. The result is, perhaps inevitably, one of the best rock & roll longplayers of all time.

Lou Reed has the alluring voice, but it's Doug Yule at the helm of the seductive opener, "Candy Says." The band's touch is light as a feather, gorgeously so, as Reed reminds us of his prowess with his characters -- the way he identifies and sympathizes with them, and senses the unlikely truth that we (and he) can see ourselves in them. His effortless lyrics on this LP are his best ever, so if I don't mention it in the paragraphs to follow, keep in mind that all of these songs have brilliant, eloquent lyrics. In any case, this is a character sketch that reaches leagues beyond the world of flower power and displays a presence of mind and thought unheard of in most rock. In the end we're left with one of the most beautiful songs of its time.

"What Goes On" immediately changes the pace, breaking out the organ and guitars and giving us Lou Reed singing pure rock & roll for all of life's worth. He sings, in his first appearance on the album, as if he has just made a great discovery in his existence, as if he'd finally had a chance to tell us how he really felt, as if it doesn't really matter but he'd love to sing about it anyway. Then the solo, then the organ is louder, and he's back... and magnetic.

Sterling Morrison and Lou's Byrdsian guitar interplay on "Some Kinda Love" is only half the song's fun. Reed's witty pop-psychology lyrics about sexuality are as intelligent and amusing as you'd expect, and the man is a poet, but even as he's living in a guise of satire he presents us with a recording that finds its own way to be erotic, not explicitly but somewhere within the pulses of Maureen Tucker's bass drum and the casual slaughter of Reed's voice. "Let us now kiss the culprit" is as vital a climax in the Velvets' catalog as "My mind's split open."

Side One reaches a climax with the magnificent "Pale Blue Eyes," one of the best rock moments on record. The personal, childlike lyrics are jaw-dropping in their articulate, frenzied affection. The musical dead air hurls by the words like a train, and Reed sounds both deathly alone and of one with the face of his surroundings, the guitar playing off his emotions the way you'd imagine is ideal to every composer and rarely achieved. Musically, it couldn't be happier or more shimmering, but Reed casts a pall on the proceedings and the world soon seems to be in black and white, the beautiful notes a fragment of a funeral march.

"Jesus" is as revealtory as "Pale Blue Eyes." The challenging declaration of faith seems a genuine cry for a help without a trace of irony. The recording itself is especially evocative. Like the rest of the album, it is aided by a muffled, distant production that brings to mind an image of a band playing in an old, decaying house (Lou Reed's version was called "the closet mix" for a reason). In their awareness of the past -- the mentions of forgotten old movies, Reed's chivalrous dialect and endless array of odd characters -- the Velvet Underground have a way of reaching beyond the traces of the world and of time that rock & roll has inhabited. They nonetheless see them within the dialect and the mindset of the music they create, rendering it exempt from the curse of aging; it understands time too well to date itself.

The next two songs, "Beginning to See the Light" and "I'm Set Free," offer the greatest pleasures in the Velvet Underground's entire catalog. The former forecasts the all-knowing glory of Loaded; an arm-raising anthem of joy and freedom, it marks Lou Reed as a real charmer on vocals ("there are problems in these times, but wooo! none of them are mine!"), and the band is loud, reflective and thrilling without wearing out its welcome or betraying the introspective flavor of the record. Modeled on the Kinks' "Tired of Waiting for You," it's irresistible and addictive, with a remarkably exhilirating bridge section... and the all-time moment, "How does it feel...?"

"I'm Set Free," however, is their most fully realized production and, for me at least, their greatest and most elegant achievement. Theatrical in a Phil Spector vein, with guitars and drums that sound like reassuring answers to every unsettling question you ever needed to ask. Lou is overjoyed at the changes his life has undertaken, but carries no misconceptions about his fate. He is set free... but only to find a new illusion. It can be nothing but uplifting, however, because although Reed is unwilling to accept the truth, he breaks it open and finds life and joy in it. "I saw my head laughing / Rolling on the ground." There are few songs in the world that are so life-affirming, potentially life-changing. The Velvet Underground is not Andy Warhol's big joke or a set of leather-clad smack-snorting nogoodniks. They are an outfit of awesome power.

"That's the Story of My Life" is a trifle, but only in comparison, and it offers somber, comforting reflection of its own. "The Murder Mystery" is another story, so to speak. Earmarked almost unanimously as a failed experiment, it's anything but. Lou and Sterling spit out words rapidly and Maureen and Doug sing softly while a creeping, crawling backing track suffocates them all slowly. You may grow bitter if you sit for untold hours with your ear to the speaker attempting to find the culprit, but accepting it as a mood, as a single painterly piece of work you can't help but adore it, especially if you stay through the whole nine minutes. Like "The Gift" and the Beatles' "Revolution 9," it's that seldom-heard self-indulgent rock experiment that works perfectly and remembers to be fun. Also, the stream-of-consciousness words are a gas if you can find them.

That madness sets the stage -- the table? -- for Maureen Tucker's step up to the spotlight, the delightful, sparse, unforgettable "After Hours." With soft cabaret backup, she offers some of Reed's most personal and touching lyrics -- he still manages to be clever and she is just pure charm all the way through. It's a perfect song and probably a shoe-in as the best album closer in rock history.

You will carry all of these wonderful songs with you for the rest of your life. I don't know what else I can say, but it really doesn't get any better than this.

[Originally posted in a state of infinite naivete in 2004.]

[SEE ALSO:]
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
White Light / White Heat (1968)

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