The Velvet Underground are alive and well (which in itself may surprise some people) and ever-changing. How do you define a group like this, who moved from “Heroin” to “Jesus” in two short-years? It is not enough to say that they have one of the broadest ranges of any group extant; this should be apparent to anyone who has listened closely to their three albums. The real question is what this music is about — smack, meth, deviate sex and drugdreams, or something deeper?
Their spiritual odyssey ranges from an early blast of sadomasochistic self-loathing called “I’m So Fucked Up,” through the furious nihilism of “Heroin” and the metaphysical quest implied in the words “I’m searching for my mainline,” to this album, which combines almost overpowering musical lyricism with deeply yearning, compassionate lyrics to let us all know that they are finally “Beginning to See the Light.”
Can this be that same bunch of junkie — faggot — sadomasochist — speed — freaks who roared their anger and their pain in storms of screaming feedback and words spat out like strings of epithets? Yes. Yes, it can, and this is perhaps the most important lesson the Velvet Underground: the power of the human soul to transcend its darker levels.
The songs on this album are about equally divided between the subjects of love and freedom. So many of them are about love, in fact, that one wonders if Lou Reed, the malevolent Burroughsian Death Dwarf who had previously never written a complimentary song about anybody, has not himself fallen in love. The opening song, “Candy Says,” is about a young girl who would like to “know completely what the others so discreetly talk about.” The fact that this and about half the other tracks on the album are ballads marks another radical departure for the Velvets. The next track is a deep throbbing thing in which he chides perhaps the same girl for her confusion with a great chorus: “Lady be good/Do what you should/You know it’ll be alright.” John Cale’s organ work on this track is stark and spare and, as usual, brilliant — this time as much for what he leaves out as what he puts in.
Then there is “Some Kinda Love,” a grooving Latiny thing, somewhat like Donovan but much more earthy, and with words that will kill you: “Put the jelly on your shoulder/Let us do what you feel most/That from which you recoil/Uh still makes your eyes moist.”
Perhaps the greatest surprise here is “Jesus,” a prayer no less. The yearning for the state of grace reflected ther culminates in “I’m Set Free,” a joyous hymn of liberation. The Velvets never seemed so beautifully close to the Byrds before.
The album is unfortunately not without its weak “tracks though. “The Murder Mystery” is an eight minute exercise in aural overload that annoys after a few listenings, and “Pale Blue Eyes” is a folky ballad that never really gets off the ground either musically or lyrically. On the whole I didn’t feel that this album matched up to White Light/White Heat, but it will still go a long way toward convincing the unbelievers that the Velvet Underground can write and play any kind of music they want to with equal brilliance.