Anyone putting Loaded on for the first time, having heard the other three Velvet Underground albums (but especially if they’ve only heard the first two) is in for a shock. It’s more of an un-shock – you go from feeling like you’re at one of Andy Warhol’s Happenings to thinking maybe you accidentally just cued up the This is Spinal Tap! soundtrack – the part where they move towards songs like “Cups and Cakes” and “(Listen to the) Flower People” – “Who Loves the Sun” sounds like summer-of-love parody.
But before I get too down on this album I’ll just say up front – “Sweet Jane” is my all time, top-5, desert-island, absolutely number one pick for best rock-and-roll/pop song every written. I’ve actually never been able to populate the rest of that list – there are just too many other legitimate claims. But whatever else does end up there, “Sweet Jane” is right at the top.
The thing about “Sweet Jane,” though, is just like I can’t really sing along to it (since most of its lyrics are talked-out), it’s also very difficult to place what exactly makes me love this song so much. It’s somewhere in these lines:
And, everyone who ever had a heart
They wouldn’t turn around and break it
And anyone who ever played a part
Oh wouldn’t turn around and hate it!
… and the rushed, urgent and joyfully impassioned plea in Reed’s tone while he sing/shouts these words comes close to capturing its appeal. So does the post-“heavenly-wine-roses” interlude “la la la, la la la/la la la, la la la”, and then the organ-sounding bass line that closes the song and leads it to a fade-out (which is also reminiscent of the final moments of “What Goes On”).
Through this song, there is a grasping frustration with the world of normalcy, and a nostalgia (“you know, those were different times”) and the above moments start to get towards that. Overlaying that frustration and nostalgia, though, is a joy that persuasively inverts those otherwise negative emotions. This is an anti-anti-romantic anthem.
and there’s even some evil mothers well, they’re gonna tell you that everything is just dirt – you know that, women never truly faint, and that, villains always blink their eyes, and that, you know, children are the only ones who blush, and that life is just to die…
It is a song that’s returning to the old times, but also one that’s protesting the supposedly inevitable professionalization/rationalization of post-60’s culture, disputing the cliche you’ll see on any VH1-I-Love-the-70’s type documentary – “by then, you know, man, we were all so TIRED” (usually spoken by someone we’re supposed to trust because they were also caught in a notoriously public moment of substance abuse, and therefore, has the cred that allowed them to safely sell out).
This song sets all that aside, and is an incredibly exciting and empowering anthem of protest against all that. In so doing, it re-asserts the fundamental joy of music.
You can make a similar argument/analysis about “Rock and Roll,” which is a great song in its own right, but it’s also much more self-consciously trying to be “about” something, and thereby it misses that same effusive joy I find in “Sweet Jane.” There are some great lines there though – “every time I turn on the radio you know there’s nothing going on at all… but one fine morning, she turned on that New York station you won’t believe what she heard at all, she started dancing to that fine, fine music, you know her life was saved by rock and roll.” Like I said, same ideas, but somehow in their more explicit, programmatic statement, they lose the immediacy.
Beyond that – well – I don’t really have a strained argument to make on behalf of the rest of Loaded that attempts to pull it up to the level of the The Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light/White Heat or The Velvet Underground. I don’t have any grand Dostoevsky or Joyce parallels. I could probably generate some, but they’d be forced and silly.
Every single time I listen to this album (even from the very first time I ever did), I get very viscerally disappointed when I hear the opening pausing-settling drums and vocals of “Cool It Down.” Think about how much less energy and excitement you get from the line here “somebody’s got the time-time”, as compared with the similar “oh no man I haven’t got the time-time” in “Sister Ray.” The opening seconds of this track are nothing less than the sound of an album (and a band) giving up.
And I just don’t get the rest of the cowboy thing that’s laced through the rest of the tracks. Or, not that I don’t get it – I don’t get why the VU wanted it, and why they’d thought we’d want to hear it.
… which is not to say there aren’t some bright spots. “New Age,” after gradually ascending from a moment of defeated glory through a sequence of progressively more hopeful segments, has a disconcerting, perplexing and also reassuring harmonic shift in its final section, one that tells me there was more “avante garde” there, but for some reason they were done with it.
“Head Held High,” “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” and “Train Comin’ Round the Bend” leave me cold. I can tell he’s having run singing (sort of), but it sounds like Reed’s playing a character he thinks is way more absorbing than it is. I guess I sing along a bit during those tracks, but that’s more from repeated exposure than any sort of inborn enthusiasm for any of the material.
It makes me feel the same way some of the Beatles stuff from their very latest period also does – “Get Back” for example. They’re trying to revisit something in rock-and-roll’s mythic past that just isn’t convincing. To use another Beatles analogy, it’s like they’re trying to capture that Americana thing that the White Album goes after, but with far, far less success. Where the White Album has undulating, spare, wavering characters from a flickering image of say, the Black Hills of South Dakota (admittedly, put through an idealizing British gaze), here, it’s just overproduced pap – sort of like how it feels when you see a group of liberal politicians trying to shoot guns or eat pies at State fairs.
I do, strangely though, enjoy listening to these tracks, if only from the futile hope that every time, I will find something new. It’s like reading the lesser work of a favorite novelist. You do it out of a sense of loyalty, and that can actually be pleasant in its one way. Another analogy: it’s a little how I feel listening to post-Automatic for the People (or maybe Monster) REM albums. I respect the performers, know they were trying to do something, and I will therefore give them a listen, or several, but I must admit to myself after a point that there’s nothing more to get out of those listenings.
There’s obviously some humor in “and I’ve walked down life’s lonely highways, hand in hand with myself, and I’ve realized how many paths have crossed between us,” but it seems so arch. But so self-conscious (“I can write a song with a country-ish recitation section in the middle”) again, it leaves me cold.
And “Oh! Sweet Nuthin'” is a decent track to end the album. Its guitar hearkens back a little to those pearls of understated instrumental wisdom on the third album. Just a little though. If there was ever a paradigm case of a “swan song,” Loaded is it.