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The Velvet Underground's Self-Titled at 50: Ranking the Songs From Least to Greatest
If the Velvet Underground's first two LPs aimed to jolt you out of your doldrums, on their self-titled third album, Lou Reed was out to haunt you. Arriving more than a year after the abrasive White Light/White Heat placed them at the forefront of the experimental rock movement, The Velvet Underground (released 50 years ago this month) saw the band tone down the screeching guitars and pivot ever-so-slightly toward the mainstream. Like its predecessors, the commercial impact was negligible; like its predecessors, its creative influence continues to resonate.
The stylistic shift was in no small part due to Reed commandeering the group, forcing bandmates Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker to join him in ousting classically trained avant-gardist John Cale lest he dissolve the band. With Cale gone, the band explored the less sinister side of the Velvets; if feedback was the omnipresent sound on WL/WH, empty space is the sonic constant on the self-titled. Lou Reed dips into fragile singer-songwriter territory on hushed ballads, Tucker prefigures Linda McCartney by lending her modest pipes to a Macca-esque ditty, and Morrison stretches into country guitar tone on the album's two rockers. Hell, there's even shades of spirituality, with Reed singing about yearning for salvation and a transcendent church organ popping up for a spell.
Regardless of where you fall in the fandom (are you a Cale Smoothie or a Reeding Heart?), the result is a clear-cut masterpiece, one of the finest albums of all time. In honor of its anniversary, here are the songs of The Velvet Underground ranked least to greatest.
10. "That's the Story of My Life"
A genial tune with cowpoke-on-a-horse percussion and a gently rollicking guitar tone, "That's the Story of My Life" isn't going to change anyone's life. But like similar sketches from Paul McCartney, this simplistic ditty is pleasant album filler.
9. "I'm Set Free"
The Velvets were so peerless that even the lesser songs on their self-titled album make '60s rock canon. "I'm Set Free" is a restrained meditation on personal freedom that slowly builds to a quiet spiritual ecstasy, with Reed sounding strangely at peace. But ever the cynic, he has to toss one dark cloud into his sunny horizon: "I'm set free / I'm set free to find a new illusion." They'd explore similar territory to greater results on "Ocean" in the near future.
8. "Some Kinda Love"
With clip-clop percussion from Tucker and a distinct Nashville flavor to Morrison's guitar, "Some Kinda Love" is the laid-back country composition you wouldn't have seen coming from Reed back in '69. Even so, the lyrics – which reflect on the chasm between thought and erotic action – are pure VU, and Reed's bored sneer is in fine form.
Born Jewish and decidedly non-religious, it's anyone's guess why the famously secular Reed would pen a plea to Jesus for salvation and then sing it with such harrowing earnestness. But unlike Dylan's genuine born-again moment a decade later, this is pure role play for Reed, possibly in homage to the deeply felt Christianity of the soul and country singers who inspired him.
6. "The Murder Mystery"
For an indication of how different TVU was from its predecessor, just compare each album's experimental detour. White Light/White Heat wrapped with a punishing, near-atonal 17-minute ear-lashing that was unlike anything in rock, but TVU's avant moment is a cheeky exploration of counter melodies set to a meandering organ straight out of an old radio drama. While Reed and Morrison spit separate poems in the right and left channels, respectively, on the verses, Tucker and Doug Yule handle the chorus – that is, they simultaneously sing two entirely separate choruses in the left and right channels, respectively. On previous Velvet LPs, their excursions climaxed in glass-, taboo- and ear-shattering apocalyptic noise; with TVU, "Murder Mystery" wraps with a quaint, simple piano riff and some light tape loops.
5. "After Hours"
It's a testament to Reed's genius within the Velvet Underground framework that he knew when to step away from the mic on his own song. Sure, he can out-sing drummer Tucker (and he's not even a vocal dynamo), but Reed understood the cynicism vibrating throughout his delivery would turn the sweetly nostalgic "After Hours" into post-modern parody. Buoyed by some wistful Django Reinhardt-esque guitar strumming, Tucker reaches a genuinely affecting level of sincerity out of Reed's reach. When her voice cracks while looking forward to the day someone tells her, "Hello, you're my very special one," it's one of the most quietly devastating moments in their discography.
4. "What Goes On"
When Lou Reed came out with a frenetic, brittle guitar burst on The Velvet Underground & Nico, Sunday mass was the furthest thing from any listener's mind, but for the band's second chapter, he grounds the obtuse lyrics and feverish riffing of "What Goes On" with a church-y organ that slowly builds up to an Elysian joy. With a galloping rhythm guitar serving as the midway point between the two extremes, "What Goes On" is a sonic encapsulation of Reed negotiating the disquieting sounds of VU Pt. 1 with the comparatively comforting sonics of VU Pt. 2.
3. "I'm Beginning to See the Light"
He might've been telling us he was emancipated on the bluntly-titled "I'm Set Free," but damn, "I'm Beginning to See the Light" is the song on this album where he truly sounds completely unfettered. The guitar is downright jaunty, the drumming light as air and Reed's adlibbed yelps and woos present a Lou that's more joyful than ever before. Any why, you ask? Well, true to Reed's prickly public image, he's happy because he's stopped giving a shit about you or anything: "There are problems in these times, but hoooo, none of them are mine," he wails with gleeful abandon at the end. Those aren't words to live by (and realistically, Reed himself did not), but when you take it as a mirthful, trolling response to then-contemporary rock stars who truly believed they could save the world, the sentiment falls into context. And smirking or not, the euphoric release of "Light" is irresistible.
2. "Candy Says"
Much like "Sunday Morning" at the top of their 1967 debut, "Candy Says" opens The Velvet Underground with a gentle murmur; but whereas that song was warm and inviting, "Candy Says" is harrowing and unflinching in its portrayal of Warhol Superstar and trans icon Candy Darling. Decades before gender dysphoria was discussed in mainstream culture with any degree of sensitivity, Reed penned this whisper of an acoustic lament about hating one's body and what the world expects of you because of the gender you were assigned at birth. The bleak resignation in the lyrics is echoed by the barely-there guitar strumming, which perpetually sounds like it's struggling to make it to the next verse. Reed insisted Doug Yule take lead vocal on this one, and the sweet naivete in his tone makes "Candy Says" one of the most heartbreaking moments in their catalog.
1. "Pale Blue Eyes"
Considering "Candy Says" is one of the greatest achievements in rock history, a song would have to be nothing short of soul-shaking to best it. Well, turn thine ears to "Pale Blues Eyes." Backed by a depressive tambourine (how is that even possible?), muffled guitar and gentle Hammond organ drone, Reed sings about his boundless, and ultimately rebuffed, love for a married woman (which in real life was his first serious love, Shelley Albin, whose hazel eyes he took some poetic liberties with). Nearly every line is emotionally devastating, but it's hard to top the sad, secular beauty of, "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." This isn't romance; it's melancholic acquiescence to letting your heart override your brain as you pledge fealty to a lover who, despite your own misgivings and the stringent judgment of the world, has complete power over you. As with much of The Velvet Underground, a gospel undercurrent runs beneath the temporal concerns, and somehow Reed makes an adulterous liaison seem like the holiest treasure of all.