The Velvet Underground’s career is often talked about in terms of drugs. Their first two albums, The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/ White Heat, are two drug-fueled albums for the ages, the first being a series of highs and lows, while the latter is like a speed overdose. But The Velvets’ third, self-titled, album is often described as the hangover. It’s the introspective awakening after the indulgence and experimentation. And, by a landslide, it’s the band’s prettiest album.
At this point in The Velvet Underground’s career, the band wasn’t the same as they were when they began. Nico left the group after the first album. And John Cale split after White Light/White Heat, leaving Lou Reed, Mo Tucker and Sterling Morrison as the only original members in the group, though Doug Yule was recruited to replace Cale on bass duties. Part of the subdued, low-key vibe on The Velvet Underground has been attributed to the departure of Cale, who was known to be the most experimental, noise-loving member of the group.
In some ways, The Velvet Underground could be seen as a Lou Reed solo album, though certainly not in any way like Transformer or Berlin. Here, Reed’s cast of characters seem to speak more from a personal place that seemed more autobiographical than “Venus in Furs” or “European Son.” Rather, Reed speaks through Candy, a drag queen, in “Candy Says.” The song sees Reed suggesting a weariness with underground parties and drugs: “I’m gonna watch the bluebirds fly/ Over my shoulder/ I’m gonna watch `em pass me by/ Maybe when I’m older.” It’s a quiet moment that comes as a shock to people used to hearing the Reed of “White Light/ White Heat,” though Lou does pick up the pace a little with “What Goes On,” a solid, gritty rock song that has one of the simplest, yet most memorable and just plain sweet sounding guitar riffs in the history of rock. Furthermore, it’s a burst of optimism on an album brimming with darkness and touches of regret and alienation:
“Lady be good/ do what you should/ it’s gonna be alright”
The high point of the album, for many, is the deeply personal and bare “Pale Blue Eyes.” The song consists of little more than a simple guitar melody, some tambourine and Reed’s hushed vocal. The song was initially inspired by a girl Reed had been seeing at Syracuse University, who, ironically, had hazel eyes. “Jesus” come next, a pained plea to Christ: “help me in my weakness, `cause I’m falling out of grace.” It’s another moment that shows Lou Reed at his most bare, and also one of the best songs of the band’s career, despite its simplicity.
“Beginning to See The Light” and “That’s the Story of My Life” are two more songs that prove Reed hadn’t yet completely soured on rock music. And though both are nice, neither are as much of a complete shock as “The Murder Mystery,” a nine minute epic psychedelic track that, despite its melodicism, was one of the weirdest things the band had recorded. The song contains two pairs of lyrics. The first is a “verse” sung by Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed, simultaneously, and the second is a “chorus” sung by Mo Tucker and Doug Yule, simultaneously. There are many murders throughout the lyrics, though Reed says it was intended to be an experiment with words. All the while, however, the guitar switches back and forth between the left and right channels, creating a very disorienting effect when played on headphones.
The short and sweet “After Hours” closes the album, sung by Maureen Tucker in such a charming and quaint manner, it doesn’t appear to belong on a Velvets album. It is however, a pretty and fun tune, with one of the sweetest lyrics attributed to the band. It paved the way, somewhat, for their next album, Loaded, which was more of a bouncy pop album than the previous three. But here it was a peculiar choice for the group and, thus, works perfectly, defying expectations even more than the rest of the album could have.
The Velvet Underground is easily the band’s most underrated album. Velvet Underground & Nico was the breakthrough. White Light was the “cool” album. Loaded was the album with the hits. And Squeeze…well…it sucked. But the self-titled record is the most graceful, the most beautiful and the one I personally find myself listening to the most.
Similar Albums/ Albums Influenced:
Galaxie 500 – On Fire
Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out
Low – Things We Lost in the Fire
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.