On Second Thought
Lou Reed & John Cale - Songs For Drella






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

There could probably be no more unlikely reunion than that between Lou Reed and John Cale. Though the pair recorded two albums together in the Velvet Underground, the explosive circumstances of Cale’s departure from that band are well-known, and even now the two former friends haven’t really resolved their differences. Perhaps the only thing that could possibly have brought them back together—if only briefly—was the death of their ex-mentor, Andy Warhol. Warhol’s early patronage of the Velvets (and his subsequent neglect of them) forever forged a love/hate bond between the artist and his two protégés.

When Warhol died in 1987, Cale and Reed finally reunited for the first time since Reed’s infamous firing of his cohort. The results of their pairing were released as Songs For Drella, a starkly confessional, emotional album that takes an intimate look at Warhol’s life. The most striking thing about the album is how honest it is. Reed, in particular, opens up very personal details of his relationship with Warhol, tackling his guilt over the at-times antagonistic bond he shared with the pop-art icon.

Often, both Reed and Cale take on the voice and words of Warhol himself. While “Images” expresses Andy’s feelings on art and painting, the majority of these songs are much more personal. The lonely “Open House” depicts Andy as desperate for company and acceptance, while on “It Wasn’t Me” the Factory maverick is angry and confused by the drug overdoses and suicides that are occurring within his circle of followers. On all these songs, Reed’s words are accompanied very simply by his own distorted guitars and Cale’s stately but playful keyboards. The bouncy, gorgeous “Nobody But You” finds Andy contemplative but happy in the aftermath of his near-fatal shooting by a deranged woman.

While the two singers’ insights into Andy’s mind are fascinating and enlightening—especially considering the often enigmatic nature of Andy’s public life—of equal interest are the moments on this record where they step out of Andy’s head and look back on him from their own points of view. On “I Believe,” Reed brutally condemns Valerie Solanis, Warhol’s attempted murderer, while placing a healthy dose of guilt on himself for not going to visit his mentor more often.

Other songs place a lens on Warhol’s stint as manager of the Velvet Underground; on “Work,” Reed gives Warhol credit for pushing him to write songs, while revealing the particulars of the parting between the Velvets and their manager. The album closes with “Hello, It’s Me,” which sounds like a New York outtake with Cale’s viola added, as Reed’s lyrics directly address Andy in a touching epitaph (“I really miss your mind/ I haven’t heard ideas like that in such a long time/ I loved to watch you draw and watch you paint”), while acknowledging that Reed still holds “some resentments that can never be unmade.”

Cale’s contributions to the album, though generally less enlightening and fleshed out than his counterpart’s, are also worthwhile. “Style It Takes” is one of his best post-Velvets tunes, a sly, witty piece of baroque pop that comments on Andy’s unique perceptions and artistic sense. And though Cale’s distinctive viola shrieks from the VU days are still missing, as they have been for most of his solo career, the stately, melodic playing he contributes to “Hello, It’s Me” is gorgeous, while his frantic bowing on “Images” builds a dense claustrophobia.

I must admit, when I first heard Songs For Drella, I was not impressed. In comparison with the near-flawless Velvet Underground catalog, or even the better moments from Reed’s solo career, on first listen this album is too minimal and lyrical to make a strong impression. But with repeated playing, the record’s charms become truly apparent. Reed and Cale’s honest, straightforward, sometimes scathing examination of Warhol takes in every aspect of the artist’s life, from his artistic outlook to his personal doubts and convictions. Lyrically, the two former Velvets are at the top of their game, weaving complex narratives within each song, both clever and poignant. Musically, the album’s subtle textures slowly ingratiate themselves, creating a beautifully understated emotional atmosphere.


By: Ed Howard
Published on: 2003-09-01
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