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‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ pays tribute to an album that redefined rock

I’ll Be Your Mirror is a star-studded homage to the seminal The Velvet Underground & Nico. Just like the 1967 version, it points toward new frontiers in rock ‘n’ roll.

In 1967, the entire concept of rock music — its possibilities, its nascent experiments — is hard to imagine today. In fact, it has the air of impossibility: like trying to grab onto the tail of an especially vivid dream upon waking. Sandwiched in between Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s, The Velvet Underground & Nico eschewed the sonic ambitions of The Beatles and The Beach Boys and hinted at something altogether more subversive: a harbinger of darkness that lay somewhere beyond the ‘Summer of Love’.

I’ll Be Your Mirror — a newly released track-for-track tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico — brings together artists like Iggy Pop, Courtney Barnett, Kurt Vile, and St. Vincent to name just a few. With executive production from Lou Reed’s friend and collaborator, the late Hal Willner, it boldly reimagines the original material and presents it in a new light.

The Velvet Underground & nico, i'll be your mirror

From the first interplay between clarinets on Sunday Morning (fronted by Michael Stipe), you’re reassured: this isn’t a restoration job. Hal Willner and the artists charged with interpreting the songs are clearly on their own path (though some tracks steer closer to the originals than others). The sparse elements in the opener are expertly layered — and while there are some nods to the original (the bass line, the distant background vocals) — it sounds fresh, futuristic even, with synthetic warbles that rise to the surface of the mix throughout the second half of the track.

Femme Fatale (featuring Sharon Van Etten) is similarly lush, with reverb-soaked vocals, underpinned by slow-moving string and synth pads. While Andrew Bird’s violin, looper pedal, and close harmonies with Lucius, are the perfect tools to explore the harsh dissonances of Venus In Furs.

All Tomorrow’s Parties is the beguiling centrepiece of I’ll Be Your Mirror, the result of a collaboration between St. Vincent and pianist-composer Thomas Bartlett. Experimenting with spoken-word timbres, St. Vincent veers from intimate, full-voice incantations, to a distant telephone, whispers, to something altogether inhuman. While the original is a blast of mid-20th-century American minimalism, this version is equally unconventional (especially when juxtaposed against the multifaceted piano work of Bartlett), but in a completely different way.

Thurston Moore and Bobby Gillespie create waves of urgent intensity in Heroin, while King Princess delivers There She Goes Again with a snarl and a chuckle, marking a rare point in the album where the music loses its cool, descending into aimless anarchy.

The ‘title’ track is performed by Courtney Barnett and signals another intriguing divergence from the 1967 release. The original, fronted by Nico, is the Velvet Underground at their most subversive: a saccharine ballad amid the chaotic tone clusters, noise, and proto-punk the surrounding tracks. But in the hands of Barnett, I’ll Be Your Mirror becomes a slacker anthem, built from a minimum of materials, detuned guitars and a laconic vocal delivery.

I'll Be Your Mirror

And ever the non-conformer, Iggy Pop meets his match in European Son. We’ve grown accustomed to Iggy’s cool and detached baritone, but here, he ratchets up the nervous energy to match the maddening chromatic spirals of the bass and atonal squawks of guitar in this glorious breakdown of a finale.

When The Velvet Underground & Nico arrived all those years ago, it showed that the conventions of this new form of music, barely a generation old at the time, ought to be overthrown. The fact that this particular cast of musicians has been assembled to contribute to I’ll Be Your Mirror, all rock iconoclasts in their own way, speaks to how the tenets of The Velvet Underground & Nico (fearless experimentalism, honesty, and a healthy disregard for the confines of rock) are well and truly alive today.

I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico is out now via Verve Records.