The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground and Nico
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
"Sunday Morning" opens the record on a beautiful note. A simple xylophone lineaccents seemingly naïve lyrics. Lead singer Lou Reed intones the opening wordscarefully, ‘Sunday morning / Brings the dawn in / It’s just a restless feeling /By my side’. As the song progresses the tone grows increasingly paranoid,‘Watch out / The world’s behind you’. This song serves as a great example of howthe Velvet Underground’s first album works: at first glance, it seems poppy andinnocent but is quick to reveal the often-fierce reality.
‘Waiting for My Man’ takes a standard rock progression (which the Pixies wouldlater drive into the ground) and turn it into the backdrop for a seedy drug dealnarrative. The concise vocalizations complement the brief guitar runs as theydiscuss the loneliness and difficulty of drugs, a vivid picture of what the restof rock and roll culture hadn’t admitted to quite yet. ‘I’m waiting for my man/ 36 dollars in my hand / up to Lexington 125 / feeling sick and dirty, moredead than alive’.
Guest singer Nico’s first appearance on the album comes as a hazy pop song,‘Femme Fatale’. ‘Here she comes / You’d better watch your step / She’s going tobreak your heart in two’, Nico half whispers, half moans. The call and responsevocals in the chorus seem a bit strange, but ground the refrain firmly in thegirl group school, which this song would attempt to destroy. Nico’s other maincontribution, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, introduces a noisy drone to theproceedings. Bassist/Violist John Cale gives the song an extra peculiarity,playing the viola as if he were trying to cut through the strings. The song,through six minutes of buzzing guitars and multi-tracked Nico, manages to giveus a taste of the dreaded morning after.
Lou Reed’s ‘Heroin’ is a bit more straightforward and grim with it’s message. ‘Ihave made a big decision / I’m going to try and nullify my life’. He sings fromthe perspective of a man who recognizes his patterns in his self-destructivelife but refuses to quit. Drummer Maureen (Moe) Tucker pounds weightily on theskins, her natural rhythm mirroring the inner conflict and the fumblingheartbeat. Lou’s voice becomes ghostly, almost laughing as he sings of ‘All thedead bodies piled up in mounds’. As the crawling viola squeals the song to aneventual conclusion, one wonders if the narrator has survived.
Though seemingly saccharine in comparison to the tragic ‘Heroin’, Reed’s ‘There She Goes Again’ and Nico’s ‘I’ll be your Mirror’ should not be overlooked. Theyare each beautifully introspective, the latter featuring Nico in a surprisinglyemotional moment, she pleads to a friend, ‘Please put down your hands / ‘Cause Isee you’. ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ is an eerie dirge; its gruesome andseemingly nonsensical lyrics poking through a pulsating noise backdrop.
‘European Son’ ends the album with a crazed riot of an ending. In a brilliantdisplay of unity, Guitarists Reed and Sterling Morrison attack the instrumentswith crazed claws, Cale adds an occasional rumble and Tucker thumps along,keeping something like a beat. As the song slows to an end in a shimmer ofnoise, one can’t help but be touched. The Velvets have given us a biting,beautiful and masterful view of the world, a view that would be expanded uponwith time.
By: Tyler Martin
Published on: 2003-09-01