Album Review: The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground

When asked what the best Velvet Underground album is, there’s a case to be made for (almost) all of them. With the exception of 1973’s Squeeze – which barely counts as a Velvet Underground album due to the lack of any original members – there’s a unique quality to all of their releases. Whether it’s the gritty innovation of their 1967 debut, the dark experimentation of 1968’s White Light / White Heat or the tuneful delicacy of 1970’s Loaded, there’s something in all of them to hail as genius. However, for me, there’s no question as to which album is their magnum opus. Simply titled The Velvet Underground, the band’s third album is a timeless masterpiece that sounds as contemporary on its 50th anniversary as it did in 1969.

Doug Yule, who replaces departing bassist John Cale, opens the record on lead vocals. His delicate voice is in striking contrast to frontman Lou Reed, establishing the gentler tone that distinguishes this record from the rest of their discography. The song in question, Candy Says, is a surprisingly empathetic portrait of gender dysphoria, especially as transgender representation at the time was more often like Pink Floyd’s sneering Arnold Layne. Reed’s masterful lyricism expands Candy’s situation to encompass a more universal existentialism, asking at the end of the chorus, “What do you think I’d see, if I could walk away from me?” It’s a heart wrenching way to open an album that somehow makes a very unique struggle accessible without belittling it.

This state of soothing melancholy runs throughout The Velvet Underground, alongside a pervasive sense of reaching for desires you just can’t grip. Pale Blue Eyes, for example, explores a forbidden love through the constant image of lingering – looking without being able to take action. Accompanied by unassuming guitar jangles and a slow, solitary tambourine, Reed’s grand romantic images of mountaintops and peaks are contrasted against the disappointing reality of a love he can never fulfil. Whilst its organ drenched instrumental is driven by a punkier energy, What Goes On similarly searches for something it cannot grasp; in this case, understanding the inner workings of another person’s mind. Reed takes a deeper dive into the concept of love on Some Kind of Love, in which the bouncy rhythm and jovial vocals accentuate the lyrics’ playful philosophising. This light existentialism reaches its peak on That’s the Story of My Life; a brief, circular meditation on existence, morality and meaning, the band eases the song’s heavy themes through a breezy, country-tinged instrumental.

Devoid of the decade’s usual bombast and excess, The Velvet Underground’s focus on straightforward songwriting lent a timeless resonance to their work.

– Nathan Brooks

The most intriguing section of The Velvet Underground occurs five tracks in, when the band begin their trilogy of explicitly Christian songs. I’ve scoured through these tracks to find some trace of irony or parody, but they appear to be played completely straight. It’s strange, especially considering Reed’s Jewish background, but I think I understand what they’re getting at. Just as Spiritualized would do decades later, the use of Christian imagery is a powerful shorthand to convey the severity of the song’s emotions. As Reed cries “help me in my weakness, because I’m falling out of grace” on Jesus, you understand how dire his struggles are. As he declares “I’m beginning to see the light!” on the enthusiastic garage rocker of the same name, you get sucked into the hope he feels when he thinks he’s found the answer. Finally, on I’m Set Free, the crescendoing chorus sweeps you up in revivalist fervour, before crashing down towards the tragic confession “I’m set free to find a new illusion”. Whatever these songs are about – religion, addiction, existentialism – doesn’t really matter; we feel the intensity of it all the same.

The Velvet Underground concludes with two of the most unusual songs the band have ever recorded. The Murder Mystery is the only composition credited to the entire band and the only track that diverges from the album’s general simplicity in favour of multi-layered experimentation. A nervous, spiralling guitar riff repeats during the verses as the voices of all four band members chatter incessantly over each other. The chorus provides some respite by alternating the singers, but it’s not long before the frantic paranoia of the verses returns. It’s a striking piece of work that put off some people at the time but I think demonstrates the daring spirit that allows The Velvet Underground to endure to this day. Even more striking, however, is how they follow it up. Stripping back to a single guitar, After Hours finds drummer Moe Tucker bringing her droll vocals to what may be the ultimate introvert anthem. Quirky, sad and not entirely in tune, it’s a deceptively beautiful way to close an album, rounding off the theme of unrequited desire with a vulnerability listeners have identified with for fifty years.

Most music is clearly a product of its time, but The Velvet Underground were so far outside the conventional image of the 1960s their music has aged surprisingly well. Devoid of the decade’s usual bombast and excess, The Velvet Underground’s focus on straightforward songwriting lent a timeless resonance to their work. As far as I’m concerned, their self-titled album is the ultimate example of this. With empathy and insight flowing through compositions of gorgeous subtlety, The Velvet Underground’s qualities have scarcely diminished over the past fifty years, with just as many riches to love in 2019 as there were in 1969.