Saturday, April 24, 2010

"The Black Angel's Death Song" by the Velvet Underground (1967)

Spin Magazine called it the most influential album ever. It was #13 on Rolling Stone's list of greatest albums. Alan Cross put it on top of his lst of classic alternative albums. Allmusic gives it five stars in five. Your aging hipster uncle, that sneering know-it-all who works at the local record store, and that pimply 'indie kid' at your high school all call it a perfect album.

There's no denying it, really: The Velvet Underground & Nico is one of the greatest albums ever. Don't even pretend to disagree; it's not up for debate. Fall in line! Praise this album. Don't bother to listen to it, though. Or if you do, just listen to the first half or so. In fact, listen to the first nine tracks. That'll do.

You see, the simple fact is that this classic album ends with two ear-bleedingly horrible tracks. Actually, 'European Son' is only very bad. But this one, which precedes it, is truly, truly annoying: Lou Reed babbling in his most hectoring of voices while John Cale tunelessly squeaks on that damned viola.

And that, to me, raises an important question: how can an album rank so high on so many lists if it contains a song as bad as this? Surely, one bad song doesn't detract from a 'good album'. But in the rarified air of critical adoration this album receives, surely a bad song matters. Let me put it this way: there is not a single song on Céline Dion's 30-million-selling, critially reviled Let's Talk About Love album as bad as 'The Black Angel's Death Song'. I would dare anyone who disagrees with me to find one.

It's not that I have something against experimentation. While I do feel that, largely, this album is at its best when it experiments with long-established song convention (my favourite songs on it all have verses and choruses, and perhaps even middle eights, and relatively classic chord sequences too), I can dig some of the moderately out-thre stuff too - say, 'All Tomorrow's Parties' or the adrenaline-rush 'Heroin'. There is definitely some great material on this album.

But I can't ride this train all the way to the end. I can't pretend it's a perfect album when it gets as deliberately annoying as this track, whose lyrics are, as far as I can tell, vaguely menacing semi-meaningful stream-of-consciousness talk about 'choosing'.

And it has, in place of a chorus or an instrumental solo, serving to break up the monopoly, someone going 'tchhhhh' really loudly into a microphone a few times. Wow. No wonder critics love this album so.

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