Album Review : The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

I don’t know just where I’m going but I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can.”

the-velvet-underground--nico-4f7bf700d18cc

Rating : 9/10

People usually have a story about this album. It either changed their lives or failed to do so, while they expected it to. I, unfortunately, don’t have one. I discovered it at a time when I was already familiar with most of the other major, over-hyped, making-all-greatest-lists albums (Sgt. Pepper, Dark Side Of The Moon, Pet Sounds etc. – you know them) and then I’ve been obsessed with it for about a month. Well, obsessed is not exactly the right word here. I didn’t like it at first. I mean, I did – I thought it was half-decent and a quite entertaining record, but nowhere near as flawless and majestic as it has been described over the years (shh, don’t tell anybody, but I still kinda share that feeling, but to a much smaller extent). But I kept listening to it, hoping that someday I’ll be able to proudly go on the internet, join the Velvet Underground army and tear apart every poor soul that dares to say something negative about the record. It took some restless, sleepless nights and a whole lot of dedicated listens, but the album finally managed to sink in.

And what an interesting album this is. The year 1967 seems to have been an incredible one, with tons of fresh, original and revolutionary ideas coming out of the blue and leaving their trace in the music history. And ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ definitely shook the music world in one way or another. First of all, let’s take a look at the lyrics. Few song-writers have approached such subjects as heroin, drug dealers or sadomasochism before. And they’re not disguised as metaphors either – in fact, if there is anybody from whom you should expect a totally straight-to-the-subject, no-bullshit attitude, Lou Reed is definitely your man. Second, the album’s variety is hard to deny as well. From soft, pleasant pop ballads, to garage rockers; from psychedelia to experimental and avant garde, these four ambitious guys have been everywhere.

Thing is, The Velvet Underground is a very interesting combination to begin with. What do we have? A cynical, stylish, sunglass-wearing, ex Pickwick Records song-writer; a musically educated, avant-garde-orientated multi-istrumentalist; a modest, never-showing-off-yet-always-on-spot-when-you-need-him rhythm guitarist and a female drummer who doesn’t use the cymbals. Take that and add a beautiful, blonde German singer with a thick, dreary voice, and the results would definitely turn out to be at least interesting.

But I’m sure you’ve had enough of the hype, so let’s get straight to what really makes this album good, the songs themselves. Believe it or not, I’m gonna dissect them one by one. Take this as a warning.

I’ll say with absolute no hesitation that the first side of the record is flat-out flawless. It starts out charmingly, with the stunning lullaby Sunday Morning. I love how steadily and carefully it marches on with Lou’s dreamy voice backed up by the tinkling celesta. The lazy, meditative atmosphere quickly enhances you, and you really, really don’t want to do anything to disturb it.

Then the pulsating driving beat of I’m Waiting For The Man gives you a strong kick, quickly bringing you back to reality. It’s no more than a garage rocker, but the subject matter is a whole other different story, for it presents a day in the life of a drug addict, particularly the way he anxiously waits for his dealer to come. It’s restless, it’s raw, it’s punchy, it’s provoking and it’s yet another winner.

Nico makes her first appearance with Femme Fatale, and she gives her absolute best, making the song perhaps one of the most emotional performances by such an emotionless voice. Listen carefully to that particular part right after the chorus where she sings “See the way she walks/Hear the way she talks”. She sings quieter and quieter up to a point where, right near the end of the second verse, her voice reaches this idle, numb-like state and she sounds almost voiceless. Go ahead and tell me that’s not terrifying and beautiful at the same time.

Venus In Furs is one of those songs that has to be listened to be truly believed. It is experimental and innovative both musically (those viola yelps and the weird guitar tuning) and lyrically (the sexual themes), but at the same time, it’s got an extremely accessible and even catchy melody (!SPOILER ALERT! – unlike ‘European Son’).

Run Run Run is yet another garage rocker, but this time even more unpolished. The song almost screams “I don’t give a damn about the production” and I can see it being an inspiration for future punkers, both musically and attitude-wise.

The first side ends on a high note with All Tomorrow’s Parties, a mostly sombre, yet hallucinating (especially because of that strident rhythm guitar) tune. And well, the fact that Nico’s tone is perfect again goes without saying. Nobody could’ve ever done the song more justice.

Unfortunately, the second side is where the jokes loosens up a bit. You don’t realize that from the beginning of course, because Heroin is another one of those classic songs that are bound to stay with you forever. I still can’t believe how well they managed to capture the song’s subject matter on tape. Pay attention in particular to that great, pulsating drum beat (simulating a heart-beat and the way it gets faster and faster during the drug experience, I guess) and the thrilling, chaotic atmosphere created by Cale’s viola in the song’s second part. The bridge is another favourite bit of mine (“Heroin, be the death of me/Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life”), because it perfectly describes what’s going on: the protagonist acknowledges his faith, that of a junkie, but he doesn’t feel neither happy nor sad about it. How do they do these things?

There She Goes Again would be a good song, only if it wouldn’t sound so much like Rolling Stones’ ‘Hitch Hike’ (which in its turn, is a Marvin Gaye cover). I did praise the album for its originality, so I have to complain when it totally lacks it as well.

Nico makes a third and last appearance with I’ll Be Your Mirror which is nice enough, even though it’s no more than a pop song. Take it on its own and you’ll appreciate the pleasant guitar melody, but when coming after all those classics, it just sounds so ordinary. Maybe it’s just me being pretentious though – as I’ve said before, it’s a good enough pop tune.

The Black Angel’s Death Song scores the album a few more points in the originality department because it’s yet another tune that sounds like nothing ever made before. A piercing viola-driven melody, occasional noisy feedback bursts and a set of random spoken lyrics, all come together and form this weird piece of music that shouldn’t work at all, but it somehow does.

And finally, the infamous European Son. The cool, funky bass lead and then the glass-breaking sound effect from which the lead guitar seems to arise make for a great, enhancing beginning. It sounds like a terrific intro that hardly gives you any clues about how the song is going to continue. Yet, a few minutes later, while still waiting for the song to properly begin, you realize that it’s no more than a jam session. Don’t get me wrong, it has its good moments and Lou Reed’s solos are quite nice, but the song just doesn’t go anywhere. I wouldn’t call it horrible, just much too overlong and as a result, tedious.

Phew, I feel like I’ve said very little, even though, this is probably the longest album review I’ve ever wrote. But I truly think that’s the ultimate proof for the fact that I love the album. I really do, and probably have played it more times than other bands’ entire discography together. Miserable nightmares still haunt me, and every now and then I find myself up waking in the middle of night all scared, starting to think that maybe I’ve done wrong in not giving the album a 10. Well, not exactly, but I’ve reevaluated lots and lots of times. It does not deserve the highest mark and that’s as objective as I can get. But that’s no excuse for you to not listen to it. Don’t even try to think twice.

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1 reply

  1. The more I think about it, the more I think that this is one of those albums where the reputation speaks more than the actual music; I love love love “Heroin” and “Sunday Morning” and maybe the Nico songs, but I find it a chore to sit through a lot of them, especially what comes after “Heroin.” On your point about “There She Goes Again,” I think it was just a parody of early rock & roll stuff with some edgy lyrics. Fun the first time, but I never want to hear it again.

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