Album: Lou Reed
The Raven, Reprise
Friday 24 January 2003
Lou Reed's concept album about Edgar Allan Poe has its roots in what he considers Poe's prescient modernity, the way this 19th-century writer anticipated the "impulse of destructive desire" in the work of such as William Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr.
And, one might add, in Reed's own work. Let's see: there was the first Velvets album with good stuff about smack and sado-masochism, the second one featuring the deadpan horror of "The Gift" and the transsexual aberrance of "Sister Ray" and "Lady Godiva's Operation", the Berlin suicide party album, and the great concept album all about death, Magic & Loss. So if anyone's qualified to empathise with the grim undercurrents of Poe's tales of mystery and imagination, it's Lou – though whether he succeeds in illuminating them significantly here remains open to question.
Commissioned by the Thalia Theatre, in Germany, The Raven is an album's worth of songs swollen to double-album size by the addition of chunks of Poe's stories, recited by the likes of Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi and Amanda Plummer. On their own, the readings would constitute a decent Poe primer, the actors' histrionics being beautifully recorded against itchy ambiences. "The Tell-Tale Heart", in particular, is wonderfully edited into a feverish sequence of dramatic overlapping dialogue, but then spoilt by being split into two sections by the heavy rock of Reed's "Blind Rage".
Most of the music is awful, a bombastic stodge of ponderously riffing guitars, saxes and keyboards. When Lou sings, things don't exactly improve. "These are the stories of Edgar Allan Poe," he barks tersely, "not exactly the boy next door". As insights go, he's not exactly Walter Benjamin. The album doesn't get into its stride until midway through the second CD, where Ornette Coleman sits in on the punk-funk-rock of "Guilty", and the Blind Boys Of Alabama bring the first authentic touch of soul on "I Wanna Know". A reflection on the lure of wrongness, it features Clarence Fountain echoing Reed's lyric in more mellifluous manner – though he sensibly avoids the lines "The paradoxical something which we make of perverseness/ Through which promptings we act without comprehensible object". Would that Reed himself had been similarly circumspect.
Ultimately, little is revealed; the album grinds bumptiously to a close with wistful reflections on ageing ("Who Am I") and blessedness ("Guardian Angel") which simply confirm that Reed's delivery is too brusque for power ballads, and a late burst of noise, "Fire Music", which may be Lou posing in sound the same question about the appeal of wrongness. To wit: what's the attraction of something as offensively wrong-sounding as this? Well, in this case, frankly, not a lot. But he makes his point.
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