The Velvet Underground’s second album embraces fearlessness and carelessness in equal measure, sprawling into battle against unseen enemies with messy results. The gentler features that balanced the debut’s barricade-breaching are in short supply here: This record is unapologetically tough and often powerfully harsh, even repellent in spots. All of it sounds one-take raw; producer Tom Wilson must have been held hostage when whoever is playing bass on “White Light/White Heat” steps up and runs the song off the rails; “Lady Godiva’s Operation” is likewise undermined by an awkward, oddly recorded performance. The frantic guitar squalling on “I Heard Her Call My Name” is joyously free of any connection to the song. As David Bowie would declare a few years later, this ain’t rock ‘n’ roll — this is genocide!
Without Nico’s chilly presence, Lou Reed and John Cale vie to see who can wield the group’s resources in more intimidating fashion. Their two long spotlights — Cale’s taut, nasty spoken tale “The Gift” and the 17 spellbinding (if patience-testing) minutes of Reed’s litany of indulgences that is “Sister Ray” — serve to marginalize the other four songs’ compact rushes. Holding aloft an ideal of chaos and carelessness, a band that initially pushed past convention here seeks to redefine it in their own image.