Reed Returns With Dark, Experimental Album
With Lou Reed, certain things come with the territory: He wears black. He’s from New York. His voice is a compelling if restricted monotone.
Just don’t make the mistake of expecting these aspects of Reed to carry over into his approach to music. He writes songs and lyrics that, despite his use of simple language, are full of imagery that is sometimes equally horrific and fixating. And the only thing formulaic about his work is that you won’t know what to expect.
His latest, “Ecstasy,” is another brilliant collection of Reed’s straightforward poetics paired with music that’s much more experimental.
And the songs are also fun to listen to — if you don’t mind that the songs’ characters aren’t shiny, happy people.
Lou Reed has made a career of writing about the exact opposite of that.
Reed first made a name for himself in the late 1960s as the co-founder and chief songwriter for the Velvet Underground, the greatest unknown rock band of all time.
After two landmark records, Reed kicked Velvets co-founder and his musical partner John Cale out of the band in 1968. (See a previous column on Cale)
For the Velvets’ remaining two albums, Reed increased his control of the band even more (even though he frequently surrendered vocal duties to new bassist Doug Yule because Reed’s voice was road-worn).
With songs like “Heroin,” “Waiting for the Man,” “Pale Blue Eyes” and countless others under his belt, Reed established himself as one of rock’s most daring and sparing songwriters. Though his talents would always remain in the shadow of Bob Dylan, Reed is an inventive poet.
As an aside, Reed is often the victim of listeners’ mistaking his art for his life. Of course, although Reed’s alleged dalliances with drug abuse, bisexuality, androgyny and electric shock treatments and his propensity for mind games are well documented in various accounts, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the song lyrics are about him.
Sure, there’s probably some of him and of people he knew in there, but what “walking on the wild side” (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist) has truly given him is the freedom to write about anything. Maybe there’s a touch of exhibitionism in there too.
When 1970 rolled around, Reed left the band and struck out on his own. His self-titled debut album, filled with Velvets outtakes, isn’t a solid effort.
Reed found his feet with his second effort, “Transformer.” Produced by David Bowie, who was enjoying the zenith of his glam-rock phase, “Transformer” is the frontrunner for Reed’s best solo record.
Full of lyrical bravado and flashy guitar playing, the album had some of Reed’s greatest songs — “Vicious,” “Andy’s Chest” and “Satellite of Love.”
The album also gave Reed his first bona fide hit, “Walk on the Wild Side.” The song was like a voyeur’s stroll through New York’s nightlife, with the scenesters from Andy Warhol’s Factory as your escorts.
Coming off the success of “Transformer,” Reed released his darkest and arguably his best album, “Berlin.”
Diving into feelings like loneliness, bitterness, depression, longing and anger, the album is really about relationships. As the Talking Heads’ David Byrne once said, “Berlin” is about “people not getting along.”
The album moves between a very stark-sparse sound to more lush, almost orchestral arrangements. The one constant is Reed’s ghostly vocals: sometimes the narrator; other times the jilted, serpent-tongued lover.
After “Berlin,” Reed continued to push his gender-bending image, which evolved into something more confrontational and akin to a spoiled rock star character. His music became more aggressive, but it also became more avant-garde.
His most notorious album of the period, “Metal Machine Music,” was a complete album of Reed conjuring sculptures of guitar feedback.
As the ’70s became the ’80s, Reed continued to release albums, but they were largely forgotten. (In a documentary about Reed, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart,” the ’80s is almost entirely skipped over.)
Interest in Reed picked up again in 1989 with the album “New York.” The album was a revival, with Reed tackling bigotry, intolerance, love and his hometown. More than anything, the record was full of passion, which had been lacking in his work for some time.
After a brief reunion with the Velvets and their induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Reed released a pair of highly acclaimed albums: “Magic and Loss” and “Set the Twilight Reeling.”
His first record of originals in four years, “Ecstasy” is another strong album, if more sinister and nasty.
While his last two efforts seemed more emotional, this album is populated with characters who manipulate, use, cheat and torture their loved ones, and they seem to enjoy it. Think of it as a lovely nightmare.
Musically, though Reed is taking risks with arrangements and sounds, it’s still reminiscent of great pop music — he still loves to hear the growl of a guitar.
Things begin with “Paranoia Key of E,” which has Reed’s voice out front, brushing up with pulsing guitar phrases and grumbling bass. His vocals have a rhythm all to themselves, though they never conflict with the melody.
On “Mad,” Reed is a masterful actor, delivering his words and conveying weariness, frustration, foolishness, manipulation and back again to love. The song lyrics are like listening to the world’s greatest con men, with Van Morrison-like horn blasts to drive the point.
For most of the album, Reed uses his longtime backing group, which features guitarist Mike Rathke, bassist Fernando Saunders and drummer Tony “Thunder” Smith. On each track, the band contributes an exceptionally tight and sympathetic performance.
Surely, the use of his band was key in pulling off the odd syncopation used in each song. While the melody is frequently jumpy and slides about, the percussion is very free-form — sometimes swinging underneath and sometimes only an adornment to the guitars.
A perfect example of this is the somber title track “Ecstasy.” With clapping percussion, a throbbing bass and the sound of strings delicately humming, Reed keeps repeating “Ecstasy,” though his voice really wants to whisper “weariness.”
The album’s opus is “Like a Possum.” And at more than 18 minutes, that’s quite an opus.
Filled with dreamlike guitar feedback and guitar lines played in reverse, the song ebbs and flows as Reed’s voice slips in between the waves; the guitars never overwhelm the vocals.
In many ways, it’s a continuation of Reed’s experimentation with “guitar as horn section” that he first began on the Velvets’ “Sister Ray.” But unlike “Sister Ray,” which was like a descent into madness that could easily clear a room (and I mean that in a good way), “Like A Possum” begins to wear on your patience after the 10-minute mark.
In the end, this album is an exhausting listen. It’s enjoyable and it grows on you on each listen, but it’s not something that’s going to let you stay in the room after it’s over.
For More Info:
- Lou Reed’s official site
- Reprise Records’ Lou Reed site
- Set the Twilight Reeling
- The Velvet Underground and Nico filmography
- Polygram’s official Velvet Underground site
- Velvet Underground Archives
- Maureen Tucker’s Taj Moe Hal (official site)
- The Velvet Underground: Links & Internet resources
Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 2000 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.