No, this not about that self-titled Velvet Underground album with the banana on the cover. This is the other self-titled album that was released two years after that infamous record. By the time of this album’s release in 1969, the band was pretty well known in the underground music scene. They already had two large, aggressive albums that went against everything that defined music at the time. In between the abrasive walls of noise and generally rabid instrumentation, beauty always flitted through the cracks. In this 1969 release, this beauty finally took center stage.
The album opens with the excellent “Candy Says,” a gentle song that describes Candy Darling with a beautifully hypnotic guitar part. Candy Darling was a transsexual actress from the Andy Warhol Factory scene. This was extremely unique subject matter at the time and pushed the boundaries of what musicians were allowed to talk about. The opening lines, “Candy says ‘I’ve come to hate my body/And all that it requires in this world,’” are just as compelling and emotionally affecting as they were 50 years ago. “Candy Says” sets the pace for the calm (at least by Velvet Underground standards) album that follows, and also for the earnest lyricism that Lou Reed excels at. Lou Reed’s lyrics have always been incredibly poetic, describing precise emotions with a few profound details. “The Velvet Underground” contains some of his most heartbreaking and memorable lines. “I’m Set Free” describes Reed’s past addiction to heroin and features the slyly devastating line, “I’m set free to find a new illusion.” This album might be less abrasive, but the raw emotionality of the music makes it just as effective as anything else in The Velvet Underground’s discography.
“Beginning to See the Light” is a personal favorite of mine. The guitars chug forward and bring out a frantic passion in Reed’s voice. Lou Reed has always had a high degree of honesty in his voice, partially because of his lyrics, but also because of his delivery. The delivery is what undeniably sells the song. You can hear the hope in his voice. You can hear him attempt to free himself from the cycle of drugs and dismay that consumed his life up until then. For four and a half minutes, you are cheering him on as he tries to find stability in his life. In the outro, Reed repeats the phrase, “How does it feel to be loved?” and manages to make it feel almost cathartic rather than cheesy.
Of course, it would sinful to talk about this album without mentioning “Pale Blue Eyes.” Everyone who has ever owned a pair of Doc Martens has probably given or received a mixtape with this song on it. There is, however, good reason for this song’s lasting presence. It is an infinitely beautiful song. When it’s played, time and space are suspended. Lou Reed’s candid letter to his first love (who married someone else) is as powerful as any of the thundering twenty-minute-long noise-rock-blueprint songs that The Velvet Underground has made. There is strength and beauty in honesty. Few songs exemplify this better than “Pale Blue Eyes,” with its sickeningly sweet lyrics and a guitar solo that slowly creeps up through the arrangement like the sun rising after a long night spent out.
The last two songs, “The Murder Mystery” and “After Hours,” showcase the true range of The Velvet Underground. The former is nearly nine minutes of competing voices speaking at the same time at different speeds. All four band members contribute vocals in different capacities, each competing for the spotlight in the classically chaotic Velvet Underground way. The last song was described by Reed himself as being “so innocent and pure” that he felt he couldn’t sing it. Fellow band member Maureen Tucker approaches the song with a certain childlike grace that creates a moment of universal clarity. All complexity and chaos is lifted, and maybe that’s the point of the album. To describe the clarity that comes with hitting rock bottom. To soundtrack when you first climb out of the rubble and you can finally start to see the light.