Bringing it All Back to Town: The Velvet Underground's "Squeeze" Re-Evaluated
(This review by Adam Venrick)
When a fantastic group releases a subpar album, blame can usually be attributed to one (or more) of a few factors. Either poor communication by the members, poor supervision (or micromanaging) by the record company or poor management. Lack of talent is also a possibility, but for a band like The Velvet Underground, lack of talent appears not to be the sole explanation. After all, the V.U. is a fantastic group, and by most accounts, their 1973 fifth album Squeeze is a subpar album.
Before we dissect what it is that does (or doesn’t) make Squeeze a subpar album, let me first say that I have a tremendous amount of respect for artists that change their style over the course of their career. Fleetwood Mac did it, Miles Davis did it and the Velvet Underground did it, dramatically. In fact, I would argue that the group’s final aforementioned album probably sounds less like their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico than albums by other bands. What started out as a combination of art rock, noise rock, proto-punk and possibly freak-folk (especially with Nico’s input) finished as something that almost feels like a knock-off of The Kinks or the Beatles (and not the tracks by either group that are particularly loved in most cases.) All of this took place, over five albums in a seven year period. And really, what led to such a dramatic change in style, was a dramatic change in membership (only two of the five albums bore the same main lineup and even so, the work done by each member was drastically different. The first album was the culmination of the psychedelic sixties. The group was formed with the help of Andy Warhol and with Lou Reed and Nico as the two front people of the first album, it seemed to go against any kind of commercial possibility. (Not surprising, given that the group’s original drummer Angus MacLise left the group before they began recording as he felt that making a record would be selling out.) After the first album, Nico left to pursue her solo career and co-founder (and my favorite Velvet) John Cale took a more front seat role on the grating (and largely overrated) White Light/White Heat. After Cale’s departure, Doug Yule joined as a vocalist to replace him and the group took a more folk-rock oriented sound on their second self-titled album and by 1970’s Loaded, they were working with full-fledged pop.
All four of these albums (though I might argue Loaded doesn’t deserve it, but for it’s fantastic A-Side) are today regarded as masterpieces. Squeeze is regarded as an embarrassment, often not included in any way, in box-set collections. Like a prodigal child, it has been cut off from the group’s otherwise immaculate family tree. I would argue, firstly, that this is a mistake. To write this article, I re-listened to Squeeze. Not a hard task, it’s a little over the thirty-three minute mark. Certainly good for a car trip or cleaning the house. And reflecting on the album, I have to note that, while it may not be exceptional, it isn’t that bad. Critics love to savage the 1973 album, with AllMusic giving it a star-and-a-half out of five and Rolling Stone only one. But I would argue that’s unfair. The album contains many serviceable tunes including “Caroline,” “Send No Letter” and “She’ll Make You Cry.” And two songs that probably deserve to be listed among the group’s best, the oft-covered folk-pop song “Friends,” and the album’s closer “Louise,” likely the last vestige of the original group (it concerns a burlesque dancer.) But even these two songs are flawed. The first is sentimental to a degree that John Cale likely never would’ve allowed and the second is not up to par with even some of the more mediocre songs on the first three albums by the group.
So what makes Squeeze so bad. I would argue: Nothing. Nothing is the general feeling one gets from this album. It leaves very little mark and seems unlikely to burn itself in one’s memory. But there’s also nothing technically wrong with it. It’s as good as some of the best albums by lesser bands. So maybe it isn’t that Squeeze is a bad album. Maybe it’s that it is not a good Velvet Underground album. If the band itself is an honors classroom, then the first four are students who showed up well prepared, while this one feels like the student who complains that his dog has eaten his homework.
But it’s regrettable to think what the album might have been. With Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison gone, the last vestige of the group from the first album was Maureen Tucker. But she was fired by the group’s manager prior to production. With no one but Yule involved, it puzzles one to think of why it was even called a Velvet Underground album. It likely would’ve faired better as Doug Yule’s solo debut. Throughout the album, he’s shown to be a capable musician (not of the inventive level of Cale) and a serviceable songwriter (not of the literary quality of Reed.) Had Tucker remained, or had Yule been allowed to lean more into himself, it could’ve been a fine (not perfect, but fine) album. Instead, it feels like a sort of Dr. Moreau type creature. Neither man nor beast. Neither good, nor catastrophically bad.
But perhaps the biggest complaint that can be made about the album is its length. As previously stated, it runs about thirty-three minutes, and yet it feels at least twice as long. It’s an album you can easily get through in one sitting and yet you’d be forgiven for not being able to do so. And truly, I can’t explain why it feels so long. Perhaps it’s because the album doesn’t feel like one cohesive thing, but rather songs that were made. It has no flow, just contents. That, and when it’s bad, it’s bad. Take it’s second song “Crash.” While this song is not even two minutes long, it feels like an absolutely mountainous affair. That’s the thing about the album, really. One can’t even say that it starts strong, ends strong and has its weakest few songs shoved in the middle. It’s thoroughly mixed and undecided all the way through.
So, finally I’m left to consider how Squeeze has aged. It’s a forty-six-year-old record and certainly worse records have been made since then (including Lou Reed’s Lulu.) And where it’s good, it is still good. I think it’s ultimate tragedy is that forty-six years later, it has not been memorable. The first album by the group sold practically not at all, but as the old saying goes “everyone who bought a copy started a band.” For Squeeze, the most memorable thing (aside from “Friends”) is the cover art, with a giant hand grasping the Empire State Building. And the tragedy is that there is no revanche for the band. No great studio album that re-united Cale, Reed, Nico, Yule, Tucker and Morrison. This was their last studio album, and should be the album listened to last. Let the other four wash over you (preferably in the order they were made.) But still, when taken on its own terms, with all of these provisions, Squeeze can stand on its own two feet. At least, for a short while.
Final Score: 64%