It’s been more than 54 years since the release of The Velvet Underground and Nico’s self-titled debut and the album’s cultural impacts continue to reverberate today. Produced by Andy Warhol, the LP covers a large swath of controversial subject matter, from addiction to prostitution and just about everything in between. With the irrefutable genius of Lou Reed’s lyricism, the mesmerizing, near uncanny vocal stylings of Nico and the backdrop of a city illuminated by its artistic promise, The Velvet Underground & Nico was the result of an enticing cross between popular culture and the avant-garde. The album was simultaneously ahead and undeniably emblematic of its time and gave incredible insight into the ethos of New York City’s bustling art scene.
Although unexpected, this year’s announcement of the cover compilation I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico showed great promise in the diverse array of musicians it set to feature. From St. Vincent to Iggy Pop and Courtney Barnett to King Princess, the record’s lineup seemed rightfully chosen, as one could trace each individual artist’s inspirations back to the iconic band and album. While the record does not flat out fail at its attempt to celebrate the original masterpiece, it consists of a mixed bag of interpretations (some much more successful than others).
The most successful covers on the album work hard to preserve the original production’s iconic sound while concurrently offering listeners new, individual takes on the classics. Kurt Vile’s performance of “Run Run Run” is an unsurprisingly perfect example of such success, as Vile’s own works take great inspiration from The Velvet Underground to begin with. Trading the original, unpolished production for pristine guitar tracks and clear vocals, Vile’s reimagining of the song perfectly fits into the categories of what makes a cover great. Breathing fresh air into the blues-inspired, cinematic tune, Vile’s presentation is a fun listen, and undoubtedly a shining star of the compilation.
Similarly, Courtney Barnett’s rendition of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is an incredibly fruitful take on its iconic predecessor. Stripped down to only an acoustic guitar, tambourine and the Australian folk musician’s iconic voice, the cover revises the love song, all while managing to hold onto the emotions that made the original a hit in the first place. Barnett does an admirable job at emulating Nico’s idiosyncratic vocal performance and impresses listeners with a wonderful guitar interpretation of what was once an entire band. Barnett’s cover is another unquestionable standout and makes for a lighthearted listen.
However, not all of the covers impress to such a degree. Either straying too far from the original recordings or not far enough, a fair portion of the compilation fails to justify its existence. On St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett’s cover of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” the production sounds as though it’s trying too hard to be avant-garde and feels underwhelming. With Bartlett’s piano chops and St. Vincent’s outstanding vocal and guitar-shredding capabilities, a track featuring an underwhelming piano performance and vocals consisting solely of St. Vincent muttering the repetitive lyrics was bound to disappoint.
Equally disappointing is King Princess’ variation of “There She Goes Again.” With an unfamiliar affectation from the singer and instrumentation that remains far too similar to the original version of the track, the cover lacks purpose. While a fully committed emulation of Reed’s vocal performance would have at the very least been commendable, King Princess seems to only commit halfway, coming across as far too similar and far too predictable.
I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico is an honest pursuit in celebrating the original, highly inspirational album. Although the tracklist features a few shining covers that balance inventiveness with nostalgia, a good portion of the record is stale, paling in comparison to the primary album’s creative genius. Undeniably well-cast but full of missed potential, in practice, the compilation is disappointingly average.
Ian Fredrickson covers music. Contact him at [email protected].