I'll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico

Various Artists

(LP - Verve #003352701)

Review by Mark Deming

When it was initially released in 1967, The Velvet Underground & Nico sounded less like an album ahead of its time than music that had appeared out of time and out of nowhere. There was some context for the sinister but dreamy pop of "Sunday Morning," the tough R&B of "There She Goes Again," and the Teutonic girl group accents of "Femme Fatale," but the dark themes, ferocious attack, and moral ambiguities of numbers like "I'm Waiting for the Man," "Venus in Furs," and "Heroin" were strong meat and without precedent in rock & roll. Brian Eno's famous quote about the album has become one of rock writing's greatest cliches -- "The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band" -- but it does speak to the fact that the few who embraced the album did so deeply and passionately. If time and changing tastes have allowed the record to evolve from a curiosity to a widely acknowledged classic, its style and personality remain unique. Producer Hal Willner, who took the tribute album to the level of an art form with projects like Amarcord Nino Rota, Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films, and Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill, had long planned to pay homage to the Velvets' debut, and it was a project he was working on at the time of his death in April 2020. I'll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico, doesn't play like a grand conceptual reimagining of the original album's themes in the manner of Willner's most ambitious releases. Instead, he allowed each artist the space to explore one of the LP's songs and find in it what they will, and the strength of I'll Be Your Mirror is how the performances often find a middle ground between the formative vision of the Velvet Underground and the viewpoint of the artist taking their turn with the music. Bobby Gillespie and Thurston Moore's cover of "Heroin" is more of an homage than a reimagining, and Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen approach "Femme Fatale" as if they think they can out-gloom Nico, but Andrew Bird and Lucius offer a remarkable take on "Venus in Furs" that strips away its noise without compromising its tension, Courtney Barnett takes the prettiness from "I'll Be Your Mirror" and makes it sound all the more organic and heartfelt, and Matt Sweeney and Iggy Pop take a deep dive into the maelstrom with "European Son" that actually outworks the original's terminal pulse. More than 50 years after its release, it seems there isn't much new to be said about The Velvet Underground & Nico, and I'll Be Your Mirror doesn't challenge that notion. But it does allow a number of worthy artists a chance to see themselves reflected in these songs, and it's a labor of love that's engaging and from the heart.

blue highlight denotes track pick