Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Velvet Underground: Loaded (1970)

(Cotillon [orig] / Rhino [reissue])

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Given its convoluted origins, this has the initial impression of a major disappointment; lots of popular literature out there about the Velvet Underground characterizes their fourth record as an overly conventional comedown, useful mostly as an introduction. Actually, it's a supreme album, wonderful all the way through to anyone seduced by the lyricism and performative bliss of Lou Reed, which makes it even sadder that it broke up the band. The original release of Loaded on Cotillon butchers three of the songs, but it's not likely to bother you until you've heard the full-length versions. I'll beg you to pick up Rhino's deluxe version of the album instead of Warner's budget-line release, but any way you can get your hands on this marvellous album is really the right way.

Loaded doesn't really operate in the same way as any of its predecessors, but it doesn't matter since they all existed in their own realms anyway. Lou Reed moves toward a mainstream sound, and the songs are excellent, but it was to no avail as mainstream success was to pass the band by completely. His rock & roll purity is more intense than ever, his poetry more incisive. "Cool It Down" has him still searching for mysterious people, here with slick guitars and double-tracked vocals. "Head Held High" is tweaked to perfection, and Reed sings like we've never heard him before, in a throaty abandon that would seem irresistible to the FM crowd. "Lonesome Cowboy Bill" expertly tackles country in a fascinating tribute to William Burroughs. And the last song on the album, "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" is a flawless widescreen expansion of his pity for the underdog, with ferocious guitar solos that don't pad out the (seven-minute) song. There is absolutely nothing in these songs to stop the band from becoming huge, and they are all a huge pleasure to listen to; it's extremely frustrating that fortune did not smile on these immensely talented people, no matter how hard they tried.

There are hints all through the album that Reed was growing disillusioned. On the teasing, insane wall of guitar "Train Round the Bend" he expresses supreme displacement. The unbelievably beautiful "New Age" sees him contemplating the fame that has narrowly evaded him and the inescapable demons of his past and everyone's. The listener may find solace in the oceanic "Hey Jude"-derived chrous that closes "New Age," but Reed is still audibly unsatisfied.

He reaches for -- and manages -- unbridled pop bliss on his opening trilogy. "Who Loves the Sun" could easily be classic Beach Boys. "Rock & Roll" is virtually Reed's autobiography, and possibly yours. Even if the end of the band would be a bitter one, this is a lasting testament to what they meant and how they would come to touch so many after their demise. "Rock & Roll" is an anthem for anyone who, like Jenny, felt lost until finding a new world on the lively radio dial and everything all of a sudden seemed to mean something.

"Sweet Jane" serves the same purpose. It is undeniably Reed's truest standard, and with its coda properly restored, his masterpiece. He wails with revelation about the people he sees and the happiness they find, and ends up making some sublime statements about life itself -- celebration from a man to whom joy so frequently seemed hard-won. Musically it's a work of his usual effortless beauty, but every note of the performance is infused with friction, and it is a song made for driving around with the top down. When it plays you feel alive and in the open air, even sitting alone in a room with headphones resting on your skull. There is nothing else like it.

My personal favorite song on Loaded, and it's filled with fabulous ones, is "I Found a Reason," a sequel of sorts to "I'm Set Free" which brings us a selfless love song from a man who admits to having just come from the brink. He tells a million stories at once, and the doo-wop textures render it proof that he is not ironic, that he believes wholeheartedly in rock & roll as communication and art and life. He is the same man who wrote "White Light/White Heat" and "Sister Ray." The only possible conclusion is that he is a genius of his craft.

And after this, he left. The band slowly fell apart thereafter, first losing Sterling Morrison then Moe Tucker. Finally they kept rolling along for a few extra years with no original members in tow, just Doug Yule and some forgotten friends. Lou Reed went on to become an elder statesman of rock & roll, and died younger than he should have... a sad ending. But no matter. The music the Velvets left behind them is of more value than nearly any other legacy of their time. They have the capability not of transporting you to another place but realizing the beauty and wonder of the place in which you already sit. If this is the closest they came to an archetypal classic rock album, it immediately jumped to the top of that particular heap, and there it remains.

[Originally written and posted in 2003. I was 19 or 20, so you'll have to excuse the fannish tone, but it's all meant sincerely.]

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