The Velvet Underground & Nico probably has the oddest choice of an opening track of all of the Velvet Underground records. However, it’s not because of any intense experimentation, or even any off-putting overt intensity. It’s quite the contrary ‒ “Sunday Morning” is an absolute beauty of a simple pop tune with its music box-esque keys, warm lead guitar, and the only vocal performance from Lou Reed on the record that could be considered to be conventionally pleasant. It’s especially jarring considering the fact that the track that follows, “I’m Waiting for the Man,” is a sleazy, rough garage rock track that deserves the label of proto-punk. It’s this large contrast between tracks that rub shoulders that makes The Velvet Underground & Nico the best of the band’s three records. While White Light/White Heat was a meditation on soundplay and sheer noise and the self-titled was a focus on songwriting, the debut’s two successors are simply the yin and yang that rightfully balanced each other out on The Velvet Underground & Nico.
The band’s association with Andy Warhol, while cut short due to disagreements between him and Reed, made quite a lot of sense, especially with The Velvet Underground & Nico. Both entities were not only some of biggest figures in New York City’s underground art scene in the late ‘60s, but the two and their most seminal work represented all of the dirty, drug-addled grit that the scene embodied. The raw, messy performances on the more straightforward rock tracks such as “There She Goes Again” may be anything but tight, but the lack of lyrical and musical boundaries are what makes these tales of drug dealers, violence, and death that much more tangible. If a song like “Heroin” was made in a conventional fashion, it wouldn’t have been nearly as thrilling and emotionally moving. The hypnotic drum beat, sped up and slowed down to imitate the beating of a smack-affected heartbeat, makes for an incredibly tense element to a song that eventually builds to an ear-piercing, feedback-filled climax. It’s a simple yet genius formula that makes Lou Reed’s lyrics, a disturbed spoken word piece where every lines feels a bit closer to the narrator’s eventual succumbing to the drug, so much more affecting. Each direction The Velvet Underground goes in Nico are worthy additions to the record, but it’s when the group pushes the boundaries at full force that it creates the true masterpieces of the record.
But even through all the dark, noisy moments of the record, The Velvet Underground still finds ways to bring beauty into the madness. The majority of Nico’s contributions to the record fall under a certain subset of tracks on The Velvet Underground & Nico. “Femme Fatale” and especially “I’ll Be Your Mirror” are these soft ballads that could be considered commonplace among other vocal pop tracks. However, as to be expected from the band which subverted the old-school blues feeling “Run Run Run” with heaps of feedback and lyrically tells the tale of four drug-aided deaths, the group finds a way to make it their own. There’s the unorthodox mixing that runs through the rest of the record, but it’s Nico’s vocals that bring an eccentric edge to these tunes. Her German origin really comes through in her voice and her cadences ‒ it’s an odd sound, but one that has a special appeal. The simple, standard-esque songwriting met with the left-field elements The Velvet Underground brings to the table contrast well and breath life into songs that at their core sound older than they really are.
The Velvet Underground & Nico will be 50 years old as of March 12 this year. After nearly a half-century, it is hard for any album to continue to be considered to be boundary-pushing. With the constantly accelerating technological advancement of music production, songs and sounds that blew minds back in 1966 might seem standard in 2016. Reversing loops isn’t as innovative as it was back when The Beatles Revolver came out and changed psychedelic music. However, there are exceptions ‒ avant-garde artists like The Residents and Captain Beefheart continue to be enigma to many music listeners. The Velvet Underground fall under this category as one of the bands that after so long, still manage to sound on the fringe. Their fearless experimentation and neglect of what the mainstream demanded what a rock band should be paid off while other acts that were much more initially successful faded into obscurity. Even some independent artists who take after the group aren’t able to capture the danger, the grit, the ugly beauty that defines The Velvet Underground & Nico. If The Velvet Underground & Nico manages to still sound so unique after 50 years, it isn’t crazy to suggest that it will continue to do so for decades on.