The Velvet Underground & Nico is an album that needs no introduction, it’s iconic cover art more recognisable than almost any other record since. I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico celebrates the seminal record with 11 artists covering the cult tracks that have influenced so much of modern music.
For an album that is so well-known, The Velvet Underground & Nico strongly resisted the mainstream, featuring wailing violas, jangling guitars, and, of course, Nico’s unmistakable voice that sits, statesman-like over the New York rockers’ loud, and at times messy, art rock. On I’ll Be Your Mirror, this spirit of experimentation lives on, through Andrew Bird and Lucius’s haunting string section on ‘Venus In Furs’, and the spoken-word mishmash that St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) make of ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties.’
The latter track is the furthest any of the artists dare to stray from the original, but Irish indie-rockers Fontaines D.C. give St Vincent a run for her money with their cover of ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song,’ making it sound like a BRIT-school noise rock track, in a good way.
Elsewhere, though, things stay closer to the mainstream. Aussie singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett’s take on ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ makes sense, her brand of casual but meaningful lyricism echoing Lou Reed’s simple and poetic metaphors. Her folky rendition loses some of the delicacy that Nico’s crisp pronunciation brings, and sounds a little over-earnest in comparison. Brooklyn singer-songwriter King Princess, meanwhile, plays it very safe, pretty much recreating the original, however her throaty delivery sounds playful enough to just about pull it off.
A highligh of the compilation is when Sharon Van Etten’s ‘Femme Fatale’ trades the original’s fuzzy arpeggios for the dramatic piano chords and drum machines that drenched her last album Remind Me Tomorrow. The track features previous collaborator Angel Olsen, who sensuously stretches out the lyrics as far as they will go, retaining the drama and dark romance that Nico is known for. Another success is ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, covered by The National frontman Matt Berninger, where urgent and percussive strings and panicked vocals highlight the subject matter; Lou Reed feeling “more dead than alive” as he waits for his drug dealer.
R.E.M.’s Michael Stripe has perhaps the most difficult task of covering ‘Sunday Morning’, the dreamy celesta-drenched opener that has been extensively covered by the likes of The Undertones, Courtney Barnett and Billy Bragg, and Matthew E. White and Flo Morrissey. Stripe pulls it off though, managing to replicate the celesta’s fragile poise with tinkling synth sounds and whispered vocals.
The scope of this Verve compilation shows the far-reaching influence of the Velvets as well as their timeless quality. Nothing here sounds outdated or tired; indeed, much of the album sounds like it was written for the artist covering it.
The Velvet Underground & Nico is undoubtedly a classic album, but ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ shows we were right in giving it such a title.
Words by Martha Storey
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