- by Jeff Penczak Rating:10 Release Date:1967-10-01 Label: Verve
Nico’s debut solo album can rightly be seen and heard as the Velvet Underground’s sophomore effort, seeing as it includes the participation of everyone except Mo Tucker (there are no drums on the album). Taken a step further, half the songs are Velvet compositions (Cale and Reed solo and in collaboration with Nico and Morrison) and the others are the original versions of songs written by Dylan (‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ which Nico always wanted the Velvets to record). Tim Hardin (‘Eulogy To Lenny Bruce’, later retitled by Hardin himself when he recorded it as ‘Lenny’s Tune’) and her then-boyfriend, Jackson Browne (‘The Fairest Of The Seasons’, ‘These Days’ (credited as 'I've Been Out Walking' on early versions), and ‘Somewhere There’s A Feather’).
Personally, I prefer the softer chamber folk of Nico’s album to the often abrasive experimentation of the Velvet’s debut, where Nico’s “songs” were my favourites. But that’s not to say all the avant garde touches have been left outside the studio doors.
Opening with Browne’s tender ‘Fairest of The Seasons’, one rightly guesses we are in for an album’s worth of the “quiet tracks” that featured Nico’s dulcet tones on the earlier release. Her droning monotone imbues the album with what may be the first expression of the much-ballyhooed “downer folk” syndrome that’s so prevalent 50 years later! The sparse backing from the author and Larry Fallon’s subtle orchestral string arrangements of Cale’s electric viola embellish the depressing lyrics of a failed relationship that feel like excerpts from Browne’s diary expressing his personal feelings for Nico: “And it is finally I decide/That I'll be leaving/In the fairest of the seasons.”
‘These Days/'I've Been Out Walking' has subsequently been made his own by Tom Rush on his 1970 eponymous Columbia debut, but again Nico lays a template that all subsequent versions will follow. Browne’s rolling acoustic guitar backing feel like our protagonist is floating on a raft down a river, contemplating another broken relationship. Frontloading the album with the Browne tracks sets the stage for the confessional ponderings of his relationship with Nico, almost making it almost as much about him as her.
Cale and Reed’s ‘Little Sister’ is also about separation. Nico allegedly asked them to write songs for her album, so this weeper could be their revenge for her departure (“Turn to fly, go away,/Little bird, please don't stay,/Fare thee well”), although received wisdom suggests they weren’t happy with her being thrust upon them by Warhol in the first place. Nico’s vocals occasionally hit a foul note or three, but the sorrow of the lyrics is effectively captured by her deep. Germanic tonalities. An uncredited fluttering flute adds to the mournful setting. That majestic flute is also at the center of the Cale’s ‘Winter Song’, creating a Spring-like tension to the cold, barren atmosphere conjured by Cale’s lyrics. I can almost see little cardinals and robins flittering away on snow-covered branches.
Side One closes with the epic Nico/Reed/Cale collab, ‘It Was A Pleasure Then’, an 8-minute head nodding drift off that’s as much a vocal exercise as an experimental reconnect with Cale’s minimalist years with LaMonte Young, et. al. Reed supplies some atonal, paint-peeling guitar strokes (on his peacock-string guitar?) and Nico strives for artistic heights she’s wisely avoided ever since! This is the closest the album comes to the Velvet’s sonic assault and is frequently avoided when fans return to the album!
Once you’ve extricated yourself from your comfy couch to flip the album over, you’ll be soothed by Reed and Morrison’s title track, essentially retelling the story of the three-and-a-half hour Warhol wankfest, with more name-dropping than a Hollywood Oscar after party! It features one of Reed’s best melodies and ranks favourable with ‘Femme Fatale’, ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror,’ and ‘All Tomorrows Parties’.
Dylan’s ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ as an original Velvet Underground track? Well, you’ve got it! Nico loved this song and often jockeyed to get the Velvets to record it, and here she (almost) gets her wish. If you’ve never heard this “original version”, you’re in for a treat, but only if you understand the circumstances of its recording. Fresh from the Velvet’s recording and touring as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Nico was anxious to showcase her personal musical tastes and selected songs were personally written for her by her boyfriends. So the tracks were suited to her vocal range and may surprise (or infuriate) the songs’ later fans who are more familiar with subsequent versions (Rainy Day’s Dylan cover springs to mind). But as is often the case, the original versions are not always the most fondly recalled or cherished!
Brown’s obscure ‘Somewhere There’s A Feather’ is another tender acoustic ballad (featuring Browne’s guitar backing) and demonstrates that even at this early age (18 when the album was recorded in April/May 1967) he had a wonderful gift for melancholic melody lines and heartbreakingly poetic lyrics.
Reed’s ‘Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams’ feels like he was auditioning to compose a score for the New York Ballet, as it hops, skips, and jumps across your speakers like a dainty ballerina. All this is set to lyrics left over from ‘Venus In Furs’: “Slash the golden whip, it slaps/Across the lover's sides/The earth trembles without remorse/Preparing for to die”! Spoken word elements, a Greek chorus of string flourishes and that marvelously omnipresent flute (apparently still unidentified 50 years later) yield one of Nico and Reed’s more flamboyant creations that’s actually rather fun to listen to!
The album ends, appropriately, on a downer: Tim Hardin’s ‘Eulogy To Lenny Bruce’. A lot has been written about Nico retitling Tim’s original, but the fact remains that her version was released a year before Hardin’s, which he originally recorded on his live album recorded in April 1968, a full year after Nico’s version was recorded. Nico’s title is more accurate, even if Hardin never intended it to be released as such. I think he may have intentionally re-titled his own composition to distinguish it (in writing at least, from Nico’s earlier/original version) and to avoid the obviously false impression that he was “covering a Nico song”. Be that as it may, the song is so prophetic in so many ways, particularly as a premonition/warning about the heroin addiction that would claim all three lives. I’m not going to debate the two versions against each other (Hardin’s live rendition is twice as long as Nico’s, naturally incorporating slightly different lyrics), but only suggest listening to Nico’s version first if you’ve heard neither and judged it on its own merits. I think you’ll agree that the lyrics take on a special poignancy knowing how applicable they would be to her demise. They could almost have been sung at her own funeral. Kudos also to Reed to his restrained acoustic plucking to allow the song to take on its intended misery and regret.
If you’re unfamiliar with Nico’s solo output, this is the place to start. She may have varied the recipe a bit on each subsequent album, but the end results pretty much followed the blueprint laid down on this essential masterpiece. Of course, all the main participants have practically disowned it, which is reason enough to at least investigate! Just remember to hide the razor blades!