(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #4 – released March 1969. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 6/9/2014)
Track listing: Candy Says / What Goes On / Some Kinda Love / Pale Blue Eyes / Jesus / Beginning To See The Light / I’m Set Free / That’s The Story Of My Life / The Murder Mystery / After Hours
Just as everyone has a favorite Beatle, every music obsessive has a favorite Velvet Underground album. The debut, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO appeals to devotees of the titular Teutonic chanteuse, a band member for only that record (she sings on just three tracks, although each one is iconic). The second album, WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT is for those who prefer them at their loudest, most relentless and experimental. The fourth album, LOADED, is for those who first heard “Sweet Jane” or “Rock and Roll” on classic rock radio and thus favor the band at their most accessible. That leaves the self-titled third album (nobody likes the Lou Reed-less fifth album, SQUEEZE), the band’s quietest, most introspective and spiritual work. (Hereafter, I refer to it as VU, not to be confused with a “lost” album released under that name in the 1980s).
John Cale, the group’s founding bassist/cellist/co-songwriter left after WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT, so it would’ve been unlikely to expect another album in that vein. Besides, how could anyone top the extremities of “Sister Ray”, the seventeen-minute drone/groove/feedback epic that closed WL/WH? Thus, VU begins with a ballad, one softer and more fragile than anything they attempted before. As if to further emphasize this is a radically different band than the one who made WL/WH, “Candy Says” is not sung by primary vocalist Lou Reed, but (at Reed’s insistence) by Cale’s replacement, multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule, who delivers it in a softer croon than Reed could ever manage. Lyrically, however, it’s still recognizably a Reed song, a character sketch about Warhol superstar Candy Darling and incidentally the first in a number of similarly titled songs Reed would record both with the band and as a solo artist (“Stephanie Says”, “Lisa Says”).
Rest assured, Reed’s vocals return on “What Goes On” (one of VU’s two up-tempo rock songs), and not a moment too soon. While never one of the genre’s best singers on a technical level, Reed possesses one of rock’s most distinctive voices. On VU, he arguably never sounded better—still able to hit a relatively agile range of notes, but not yet lapsing into the knowing shtick that would color much of his solo career. Here, he sounds impassioned and engaged, a bandleader in every sense but not one who obscures the other members. “What Goes On” builds into a fine groove, the basic guitar-bass-drums lineup augmented by a soulful organ—it’s far more uplifting and optimistic than anything the band previously recorded. One could say the same, perhaps tenfold, for the other rocker, “Beginning To See The Light”. Reed’s vocal here is even more animated, reaching for (if not quite hitting) impossibly high notes but it doesn’t matter because his enthusiasm is so damn infectious. He sounds like a man redeemed, someone who has experienced the very worst but has yet come out the other side reborn and revitalized, ready to take on anything. The song ends with the repeated mantra, “How does it feel to be loved?”, simultaneously bursting with joy and wisdom; I could listen to it on repeat until the end of time.
Still, those two tracks are hardly indicative of what VU is about. As a whole, one could almost describe the album as folk rock, only it doesn’t sound anything like contemporaries Simon and Garfunkel or The Byrds—no chiming 12-string guitars, pretty harmonies or string arrangements. The majority of VU is strikingly minimalist. “Some Kinda Love” consists of a guitar in the right channel, a bass and a cowbell in the left channel, and Reed’s half sung, half spoken interjections in the middle, alternating the silly (“Put some jelly on your shoulder”) with the sublime (“Between thought and expression lies a lifetime”). “Jesus” accumulates intensity not just from its hymn-like allure and sudden crescendos, but also from the quiet spaces in-between—that old adage of what’s not played having as much value as what is (the song’s final, echo-laden rendition of its title is a suitably haunting conclusion to VU’s first half–it’s served as a great transition on multiple mixes for me). “Pale Blue Eyes”, nearly the Reed-sung twin of “Candy Says”, might be VU’s best-known song, not to mention the band’s most influential (followers from Yo La Tengo to R.E.M. (who later covered it) and countless other indie rock bands would not exist without it). I have nothing more to say about it except that Reed’s reading of the potentially rote lyric, “It’s truly, truly a sin” only works because he absolutely sells it.
I’d much rather talk at length about “I’m Set Free”, in which Reed tempers the optimism of previous track “Beginning To See The Light” with a resolution that approaches enlightenment. Majestic and nearly inspirational-sounding, it avoids seeming pretentious or overblown by sticking to simple-yet-profound language. Reed sings that he’s been free and he’s been bound, that he’s seen “his head laughing, rolling on the ground” and the chorus plainly but effectively repeats the song’s title, only to conclude it with the phrase, “to find a new illusion”, taking the wind out of a potentially fatuous statement while remaining in awe of the power of renewal. In full disclosure, it was a key song in helping me through a bad breakup years ago, and it still transports me back to that particular time in my life—it sort of underscores how much the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief not only apply to death, but also to a relationship’s demise.
If “I’m Set Free” is VU’s emotional peak, the three tracks that follow are strictly diversions, paths stumbled upon but not explored too extensively. “That’s The Story Of My Life” is in tune with the album’s overall gentler tone but is positively wistful in comparison, its two-minute duration ensuring that it comes and goes in the blink of an eye. One could make no further contrast than by placing it next to the nine-minute “The Murder Mystery”, VU’s sole callback to the band’s avant-garde roots (Robert Christgau amusingly called it “another bummer experiment.”) It mechanically alternates between overlapping spoken word poetry nonsense from Reed and guitarist Sterling Morrison (“Relent and obverse and inverse and perverse and reverse the inverse of perverse…”) in the verses with similarly overlapping disparate melodies sung by Yule and drummer Maureen “Mo” Tucker in the choruses. On first listen, it sticks out like a sore thumb on VU. However, if you’re open to it, it’s endlessly listenable, densely packed with content and almost hypnotic in its repetition-without-redundancy (and also highly influential, anticipating bands from Can and Television to Stereolab and Radiohead).
If it was VU’s closer, “The Murder Mystery” might be an ideal time for less adventurous listeners to tune out. As the penultimate track, it’s worth muddling through for the actual closer, “After Hours”, which you could not imagine placed anywhere else on the album. Presented as a simplistic, guitar strummed goof, it’s one of two songs in the band’s entire oeuvre sung by Tucker. To put it bluntly, she doesn’t have the vocal ability of even someone like Nico. You could call her voice thin, amateurish, even homely, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but you’d be missing the point. Despite such perceived deficiencies, Tucker sounds incredibly human, a lot like you or I would singing this song. This is why VU, which missed the charts entirely upon release has aged far better than most of the more popular records of 1969: it doesn’t overtly feel like the work of rock stars but instead of real people, inspired amateurs, if you will. Not to diminish the band’s talent or accomplishments (or overshadow that fact that they sung about such things as drag queens and kinky sex) but today, VU’s fragility and rawness are refreshingly humane—the full-blooded efforts of flawed individuals, playing to their collective strengths simply via how well they played together.
Up next: we (finally) arrive at our first solo female singer.
Video for “Beginning To See The Light”:
Video for “I’m Set Free”: