The Velvet Underground
Zach Rogers, Contributing Writer
April 25, 2012
Filed under Wright Life
The Velvet Underground was a band that was always trying to find itself. The collective figures, led most prominently by Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, were always searching for a distinct, signature sound, and with each new album it looked as if they were trying something different. The band’s debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, displayed an emerging rock presence fruiting to life. The songs are packed with dark themes and tough New York City swagger, characteristics which became staples in the band’s demeanor. The album has long been considered the Velvets crowning achievement, but it was by no means everything the band had in store.
Their next record, White Light/White Heat, could arguably be considered the first “true” Velvet Underground record, one made without the assistance of an outside voice or Warhol breathing down their necks. It was the band in their rawest and loudest form, with distortion cranked all the way up while flying on amphetamines. The result was drastically different from their debut, and once again it found the Velvet Underground doing a little soul searching, trying hard to figure out who exactly they were as a group.
So by the time they started recording their third album, you’d think they’d have it all figured out, right? Wrong. Well, sort of. For starters, founding member John Cale left before recording even commenced, causing Doug Yule to step up, whose handsome looks and innocent characteristics were a far cry from the wild and experimental Cale. But with Yule came discipline, and discipline served the Velvets well in the studio. They were all aiming to distance themselves from their Andy Warhol origins, and Yule may have been just the right thing to get some straight songs out of the band.
Those straight songs actually turned out to be pretty dang good. “Candy Says” is floaty and dreamlike, and it’s one of the most extreme examples of the band’s new “softer” sound. “Pale Blue Eyes” finds the band, especially Lou Reed, at their most sensitive, and it could very well be the most gorgeous song Reed has ever written. “I’m Set Free”, with all the hopefulness it seems to give off, actually sounds more like an empty, desperate state of denial once you start digging deep. The lyrics talk of being happy and free, but the music gives off a sense of loneliness, especially during the middle guitar break.
For all the softness going on, there’s still plenty of upbeat songs on Velvet Underground. “What Goes On” is a stomping, rousing jam led prominently by the powerful organ playing of Yule. “Beginning to See the Light” continues in much of the same vein. It’s catchy, and at times comes awfully close to sounding like a late-era Byrds track. “That’s The Story of My Life” is a fun country-rocker that tells the story of well, someone’s life, but who’s? Reed’s? Nobody really knows, but the song itself is only two minutes long, which leads me to believe that whoever it was had an either extremely boring or very short-lived existence. Both of these theories fail to line up with my image of Lou Reed, so I highly doubt the song is autobiographical.
“The Murder Mystery” is where the Velvets make clear that they haven’t forgotten about their past, which only adds to the overall confusion. It sees them exploring the avant-garde side of music, the side to which their most known for, and although it starts out great, it eventually hangs on for too long. It does contain some nice vocal intertwining between Reed and drummer Maureen Tucker, and otherwise it would make a great song if it were just cut down in length.
The album ends with “After Hours”, a song most well-known for having Tucker on lead vocals. It’s another sweet and sincere moment from the group, and a perfect end for the album. Her gentle voice does the song justice that Reed’s simply could not have done. It’s bare and pure, and follows the minimal lead of the rest of the songs. The Velvets have always been a stripped-down kind of band, but throughout this album they are basically standing naked. The songs are beautiful and tender, a stark contrast to the street-tough-New Yorkers they were a year before. But that was the plan all along. The goal was to be fresh and stand-out instead of hiding underneath the experimental umbrella. There was a reason why three albums in the band finally decided to release a self-titled record. It was the start of something new, something the group wanted to be best known for. Despite what may have happened over the years, what’s left behind is a great collection of songs, a collection that probably wouldn’t work anywhere else. Although they may have constantly been evolving, the Velvet Underground always managed to release albums that felt complete, and this was another example of that brilliant strength.