Here, you would think, is a project bound to kick you in the gut. Lou Reed and John Cale, stars of the explosive Velvet Underground, have reunited for the first time since the band broke up in 1970 — and they’re singing songs they wrote about the Velvets’ mentor, Andy Warhol.
But the results seem surprisingly tentative. Songs for ‘Drella — ”’Drella” was Warhol’s nickname, a fusion of Dracula and Cinderella — is what classical musicians would call a song cycle, a collection of songs that tells a story. (In performance last year, at the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, it was presented explicitly as a work of art.) Each song evokes a phase of Warhol’s life: the development of his characteristic art (”Images”); the deaths of members of his entourage (”It Wasn’t Me”); his near-fatal shooting by Valerie Solanas (”I Believe”).
What initially carries these songs is the familiar sound of Lou Reed’s voice, blended from anger, darkness, memory, and compassion. The music itself, though, is nothing much. It’s a mixture of rock and things that aren’t quite rock, a mélange of guitar strums and floating synthesizer haze, spiked with melody from Cale’s viola and a dash of old-fashioned Velvet Underground crackly noise.
No song draws much attention for its melody, sound, or rhythm. Soon even Reed’s recitation (the songs are just as often spoken as sung) seems to pale. The problem, in the end, might be the two collaborators’ view of Warhol. If the songs are meant simply as a portrait of him, then they’re too respectful. The intentional blankness of Warhol’s art and philosophy isn’t evoked; neither is the childlike depravity of his entourage, nor the inane social flitting of his later days, as reflected in his diary.
If Reed and Cale wanted these songs to convey their own sense of Warhol, they should have said more about themselves. Intriguingly, in the one number that does stand out, ”A Dream,” they make Warhol — tired, lonely, near the end of his life — talk about them. He hates Lou Reed, he says; as Reed got famous, he started to snub Warhol. It’s Cale who speaks this reminiscence, and though the music behind him is nothing more than wavery atmosphere, his voice unforgettably conjures the chill of Warhol’s decline.
Cale, then, emerges as the most memorable performer on this album. Who ever thought we’d see bad boy Lou Reed being too polite?