The clack of go-go boot heels, the smell of spliffs and dirty martinis, the grit of 1960s New York City: The Velvet Underground’s 1967 album in collaboration with German singer Nico “The Velvet Underground & Nico” evokes a cacophony of sensation, defining the world of rock music in just under fifty minutes of unapologetic sound. “I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico,” released Sept. 24, 2021, is a spunky resurrection of the groundbreaking 1967 masterpiece.
54 years later, the tribute album maintains the original’s cultural capital and leaves even new listeners nostalgic for a generation they may have never known. The collection of featured artists is much like the composition of “The Velvet Underground & Nico” itself: jumbled, dissonant and exciting. Ranging from Courtney Barnett to Iggy Pop, all of the artists vie to do justice to one of the most influential albums of all time.
Chaotic and chic all at once, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” knows no bounds when it comes to genre, style or notions of musical orthodoxy. The Velvet Underground as a band created a resounding cultural influence through its experimental rock genre and use of droning guitar tunings. From David Bowie to the Ramones, The Velvet Underground laid the foundation for generations of daring rock and alternative music of all persuasions.
The album opens with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. covering “Sunday Morning,” inviting listeners in with gentle microphone feedback, expressive vocals and dissonant guitar chords. This rendition is more stripped-down than the whimsical original performance, but Stipe’s relaxed, gentle voice contrasts with bright synth notes and deep, echoing strings in a refreshing take on one of The Velvet Underground’s most beloved songs.
Thurston Moore and Bobby Gillespie’s gravelly rendition of “Heroin” likewise does great justice to the original. The Sonic Youth and Primal Scream frontmen, respectively, have led careers with profound and unmistakable Underground influences, making the cover feel deeply personal and generationally transcendent. “Heroin” unexpectedly combines Moore’s pleading vocals with Gillespie’s thrashing guitar riffs, creating a beautiful dissonance.
Although overall a wonderful tribute, the re-recorded album is not entirely flawless. The covers take a bit too much creative liberty with the source material, showing that sometimes great songs really are better left alone. For example, consider pop-rock artist St. Vincent’s revival of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” perhaps the most adventurous track on the album. Backed by soft, muffled jazz-like tones and overlaid with lyrics in spoken-word, the cover is only faintly reminiscent of The Underground’s edgy style. Similarly, Courtney Barnett’s take on the title track, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” loses sight of the moving original. Barnett scraps the soft and soaring vocals of the original chorus for a monotonous, chatty tone that makes the song a somewhat uncomfortable listen.
By contrast, Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen’s duet performance of “Femme Fatale” is dreamy. The pair’s slow, soothing vocals marry exceptionally well in a gentler take on Nico’s more aggressive vocals in the original. Blending wistful piano, sedative drum beats and mesmerizing harmonies, Van Etten’s version channels the addictive nature of the original with a modern, haunting twist.
“I’ll Be Your Mirror” will have you falling back in love with “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” Comparatively dark and experimental, the tribute transcends time and spirit in a refined display of both the birth and the sublime legacy of rock music as we know it today. The album’s takes on its source material is both a refreshing and decadent taste of the dizziness, ecstasy and grit that made the original so beloved. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is a headlong dive into The Underground. Ultimately, the success of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” indicates that The Velvet Underground will live on in the hearts of its listeners forever.