The Velvet Underground - White Light White Heat
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.
If you read Rolling Stone (hopefully for the pictures), you will probably already be aware that White Light White Heat was recently awarded the title of 'coolest album ever'. This decision was quite puzzling to me. There is little doubt that the Velvets are among the coolest bands ever, but to label this particular album the coolest in their catalog is strange. Why not the unlikely pop mastery of Velvet Underground and Nico ? Why not the refined humanity of their third, self-titled album? Baffling questions and irrelevant awards aside, White Light White Heat is certainly a great album.
The title track opens the disk with a blues-laden fury; Lou Reed and crew buzz through a scathing ditty about speed use. The exuberance with which he delivers it would lead you to believe that the group had not just spent an entire record effectively decrying the drug culture, but that’s not really the point. The destruction and rejection of this superficial high is just as important as its creation. In this very exuberant vein, the Velvets begin their erratic second album.
The brilliance and sonic naivete that made the first album so great seem to have taken a back seat to the group’s more experimental tendencies. ‘Lady Godiva’s Gift’ is a good example of this. The bright, grinding guitar sounds are dulled slightly by an uninterested voice delivering lines like ‘Sick with silence, she weeps sincerely / Saying words that have all so clearly been said / So long ago’. On the other hand, ‘Here She Comes Now’, though it may seem lacking in lyrical depth, manages to survive on Reed’s ‘cool’ delivery. The song succeeds; its triumphant spontaneity shining through the rough patches.
One major problem with the album is 'The Gift', a short story written by Lou Reed and read by John Cale. The story is interesting enough: man longs for estranged girlfriend, cannot afford to visit her, mails self to her, craziness ensues. The problem is, the song goes on for eight minutes. Cale's voice murmurs in one channel, the band pumps out a two-chord jam in the other. Once the initial off-Broadway charm of the text wears off, the ‘song’ becomes tedious. If looked at as an ambient texture piece it is saved a bit, but why put an eight-minute texture piece in the middle of an otherwise rocking album?
Working along similar minimalist lines as ‘The Gift’, but delivering tenfold with a brilliant intensity is ‘Sister Ray’. The song, considered by many to be a classic, places musical exploration over lyrical steadiness. The end result is over 17 minutes of jaw-dropping beauty. Guitars bounce into each other effortlessly, drums are tossed about, and an electric organ pierces your brain with distorted shards of sound. About five or six minutes in you lose yourself in this glorious chaos. Though the album may suffer from lack of cohesiveness, it exists as a valuable document of the Velvets majesty.
By: Tyler Martin
Published on: 2003-09-01