Sound — 9
The Velvet Underground were an outfit composed of guitarist/singer Lou Reed, violist/bassist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Mo Tucker. They were joined on this album by German chanteuse Nico. The Velvets were arguably the first alternative band, taking elements of garage rock, avant-garde and Dylan and covering subjects from drugs (rather risque to be this blunt about drugs back in the 60s) to S&M (still risque today). The band were regulars at Andy Warhol's Factory back in the mid-60s. Eventually they managed to convince Warhol to sponsor their first album (hence his "production" credit here) and draw their cover art. He also designed a show for them (the Exploding Plastic Inevitable), which included Warhol film clips projected behind the band and S&M dancers whipping each other on stage.
Lyrics — 10
Oddly enough, the album starts off with one of the most beautiful pop songs ever written. "Sunday Morning" is accompanied by a prominent celesta and thick bass lines. Lou's lyrics here are mysterious but, well, normal-sounding, something that can't be said for a lot of the lyrics on this album. The way Lou's voice slowly disappears behind a wall of reverb before the solo is truly magical. Nico's backing vocals also add to the overall effect. Despite being released as a single, the song didn't lend to the band's commercial success. It would be a while before Lou would try another straight pop song. "I'm Waiting For the Man" marks the true beginning of the album. Cale lays down a simple, pounding piano part for Lou's story of meeting his dealer and all of the hazards that go with it. The song's repetition can make the song initially dull, but repeated listens will make it one of more enjoyable songs on the album. "Femme Fatale" is the first of 3 numbers sung by Nico here. Her voice is strikingly deep and can get on the nerves of some, but I find it fits in well with the song. The instrumental backing here is gentle. If not for Nico's less than tuneful voice it would have made a good single. "Venus in Furs" is Lou's S&M character assassination piece, though the song is Cale's baby. His electric viola drone is very prominent here, making this one of the more avant-garde songs here. Lou's lyrics are based off of a novel of the same name. The song's meaning can be difficult to decipher, but once you find out what it's about, it just seems kind of silly. "Run Run Run" is a simple garage rocker reminiscent of Bringing it All Back Home-era Dylan. The solo is a fun bastardization of Hendrix. "All Tomorrow's Parties" is Nico's second showcase here, featuring a repetitive piano pattern from Cale and an amateurish guitar part from Morrison. The song itself is decent material but Nico's droning vocals make it seem to drag for far too long. "Heroin" is based on two chords, at first strummed but arpgeggiated for the verses. The song spouts some of Lou's best lyrics about, well, heroin. Though Reed often wrote about drugs, he doesn't particularly glorify their use like a lot of songs in the Summer of Love did. Rather, he tells of the drug addict who can't cope, who wishes he was born a thousand years ago, who wishes he was dead when he's not "rushing on his run." Yes, it's a rather romantic take on drug use, but a more honest one than most. Eventually the gentle song gives way to a few minutes of searing guitar feedback and electric viola chaos while Lou starts ranting about even God not being able to help. The song is the best example of Lou's urban poetry. In contrast, the next couple songs are lightweight. "There She Goes Again" features falsetto vocals from Cale. "I'll Be Your Mirror" is the last of the Nico-sung tunes. It was arguably a love song Lou wrote for Nico and, in a twist of irony, had her sing. The last two tracks are largely forgettable. "The Black Angel's Death Song" features more viola droning ala Venus in Furs, but this time the subject matter is largely uninteresting. "European Son" is more or less an 8-minute version of the solo from "Run Run Run," which wasn't very memorable to begin with.
Overall Impression — 9
The sound of this album was a big influence on alternative music, and the authenticity of the lyrics greatly influenced punk rock. Not surprisingly, the album failed to gain much commercial success despite Warhol's backing. They would ditch Warhol and the EPI, along with Nico, for their next album White Light/White Heat before Cale's departure, after which the Reed-led band would move in a far more commercial direction. While those albums may be more accessible, this one is all the more rewarding.