On their eponymous third album, The Velvet Underground inched closer to pure pop pulchritude while laying a new template for the future sound of college radio
On their first album, The Velvet Underground succeeded in clearing a significant amount of artistic space for themselves (and for rock music in general). Their style could be delicate, noisy, abstract, hypnotic – whatever served the song and created the necessary mood. On their second LP, White Light/White Heat (1968), they focused on the rougher side of their equation, with the distortion on songs like “I Heard Her Call My Name,” “Sister Ray” and the title track pushed so far into the red that some early purchasers of the album tried to return it, thinking it was defective. So what would they do for a third album? What few fans they had back then surely knew to expect the unexpected and they were not disappointed.
Released in March 1969 and simply titled The Velvet Underground, the band’s last album for MGM/Verve came after significant changes in the group, most notably the departure of John Cale. Cale was a founding member and probably the only Velvet near the artistic level of chief songwriter Lou Reed. It seems that he and Reed met an artistic and personal impasse and were unable to work together, only reuniting over 20 years later in the wake of Andy Warhol’s death for the Songs For Drella album. The VU didn’t slow down however: barely a month after Cale’s exit, they were already performing with new member Doug Yule, who played bass, keyboards and sang in an affectless tenor – in a way, he could handle some of Cale’s parts and some of Nico’s parts. At the time, he seemed like a good pickup.
This version of the band played a lot of live dates in the Midwest, Texas, and on the west coast. It was during the latter dates that they began laying down tracks for The Velvet Underground. In the book that accompanied the essential Peel Slowly And See box set (1995), guitarist Sterling Morrison relates that part of the change in the sound of the third album was due to a theft of equipment: “We used to keep all our special-effects boxes in these ammunition cases…and they were stolen at JFK Airport in New York.” “Still,” he concluded, “I didn’t mind playing cleaner.” In the same book, Reed is quoted as saying that repeating the overdriven sound of White Light/White Heat “would be a terrible mistake.” The fact also remains that Reed’s songs were some of his most introspective to date and dovetailed perfectly with the new sonic approach.
“Candy Says” opens the album with a startling intimacy, drawing the listener in immediately to the story of Warhol Factory denizen Candy Darling: “Candy says/I’ve come to hate my body/And all that it requires/In this world,” Doug Yule sings to the barest of instrumental backgrounds. Is it possible to imagine a more succinct and empathetic description of the conundrum at the core of the psyche of some trans people? This was certainly still transgressive material for 1969 and the almost folky approach was a seductive delivery system for some very complex ideas. The next song, “What Goes On,” is more about the groove than the lyrics. All the touring had turned the band into an unstoppable force, and the song featured the perfectly meshed guitars of Reed and Morrison with Yule’s organ soaring above. The guitar solo is an expression of pure release, a crystalline painting in sound of the power of rock and roll.
“Some Kinda Love” is again full of ideas, with a nifty backbeat provided by Maureen Tucker’s cowbell and bass drum. With casual cool, Reed drops one of his signature lines: “Between thought and expression/Lies a lifetime” – a hard-won truth that any poet would be proud of. The same goes for the next song, “Pale Blue Eyes.” Not only is this likely Reed’s greatest ballad, it’s one of the best of the entire rock era. It’s simple and elemental enough that a medieval troubadour could likely relate: “Thought of you as my mountaintop/Thought of you as my peak/Thought of you as everything/I’ve had but couldn’t keep/Linger on, your pale blue eyes.” Of course, Reed being who he is, he has to push the envelope: “It was good what we did yesterday/And I’d do it once again/The fact that you are married/Only proves you’re my best friend/But it’s truly, truly a sin.” The ultra-restrained backing is beyond beautiful and the combination of music and lyrics proves Reed’s contention that rock could be an art form – and one for adults.
“Jesus” is a confounding song if you try to reconcile it with the man who wrote and sang it. But when you consider Reed’s novelistic approach, it seems another empathic portrait like “Candy Says,” except the person being described is seeking salvation rather than exploring his or her sexuality. The disarming sincerity of Lou’s vocals proves that he is a master performer, inhabiting the role completely, like his inspirations Marlon Brando and James Dean. “Beginning To See The Light” is another rocker, with a circular riff and a chugging rhythm. In some ways this song and What Goes On, perfect as they are, are warm ups for the one-two punch of “Sweet Jane” and “Rock And Roll” on the next album, Loaded. “I’m Set Free” gently skewers the idea of redemption and release with another bombshell line buried in the inspirational and impressionistic lyrics: “I’m set free to find a new illusion.”
Considering what comes before, not to mention some of the songs in their quiver like Foggy Notion and Lisa Says (both of which went unissued until 1985), the final three songs on the album are slightly underwhelming, though they all have their charms. “That’s The Story Of My Life” is a perky ditty that is too brief to really develop, while “The Murder Mystery” is an equally unformed experiment that takes nearly nine minutes to go almost nowhere. “Good try, but it didn’t work,” was Lou’s later verdict. “After Hours” is a vehicle for Tucker’s untrained voice and, like the Nico songs on the first album, another example of Reed writing precisely for another singer’s limitations. Tucker’s slightly off-key vocals, and the way they cut the sentimentality of the lyrics could be seen as the inspiration for a wealth of indie and outsider artists in the ensuing decades.
While The Velvet Underground makes a lot less noise on its surface than the two albums that preceded it, its ripple effects would be no less powerful. In its finest moments, it solidified Reed’s position as an incredibly fine songwriter who could tackle complex and grown-up concepts in the context of rock music, without having to rely on shock value. The spare instrumentation and minimal arrangements showed that there was another way besides the overwrought sounds of late psychedelia or the bombast of hard rock. In its own quiet way, The Velvet Underground’s third album would serve as the template for the leading lights of the college, alternative and indie rock movements twenty years later, from Galaxie 500 and Cat Power to Bon Iver and Iron & Wine.