Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Saint Lou's return

Reed delivers his best in "Ecstasy"

By Ted Drozdowski

APRIL 10, 2000:  Like the alewife and the manatee, Lou Reed has enjoyed a sort of protected status in the wake of punk rock. The truth is, he's released a pile of wildly uneven albums in the '80s and '90s. The best, 1982's The Blue Mask and 1989's New York, return to the aesthetics of decay and power he harnessed with the Velvet Underground. The worst, self-indulgent dross like 1984's New Sensations and his maudlin grappling with mortality in 1992's obscenely over-rated Magic and Loss, nonetheless elicit the automatic hosannas that are bestowed upon rock-and-roll saints.

The problem is that when Reed does something that actually reconnects with the profundity of his early days, its impact is diluted by the usual flow of bromides. So when you hear that his new Ecstasy (Reprise) is as acerbic, hard-headed, complex, and insightful as his best post-Velvets' work, don't write it off.

Ecstasy is Reed's finest album since New York. In fact, it rocks harder. The guitars crackle and whistle like a wood fire, displaying a superheated crunch in their rhythm tracks that seems like the ideal Reed's searched for as he's experimented with different instrument and amplifier combinations over the years. Some of Ecstasy's lyrics probe what it means to be human as thoroughly as "Some Kinda Love" or "I'm Set Free" from The Velvet Underground. Yet they're tempered with a poignance acquired from decades of self-examination and, perhaps, a newfound tenderness that's a benefit of the love Reed's found with performance artist/musician Laurie Anderson.

Ecstasy is a collection of love songs -- 14 small investigations into the state of romance. It's a topic people never tire of. Ask Shakespeare, Byron, Chuck Berry, Celine Dion. They'll tell ya.

Reed keeps his inquiries fresh by setting them amid the pressures of Y2K reality. Ecstasy screams, and sometimes quietly reflects, that ours is not an easy time to be in love. The pace of work and life and the information stream has wired tension into our genetic fabric, overloading the human heart and mind to the point where many of us can barely live comfortably within our own skin, let alone share that most intimate space with another. Self-doubt, insecurity, paranoia, and other toxins have grown to epidemic proportions as our fundamental desire to believe in the core American values of truth, security, fairness, and opportunity has been trampled by government, church, business, and -- most regrettably -- one another.

In short, things suck. So much that we're often unable to reach without limit or strain for the salvation, the ecstasy -- hell, the respite -- that love brings.

And that's what Reed writes about in songs like "Modern Dance," a monologue of indecision. Where to live? How to live? Whether or not to love? Reed asks these questions as he cants verses of options and wonders whether it's all downhill after the first kiss. "Paranoia in the Key of E" mulls the same ground -- to be or not to be? In love, that is.

Reed's dry voice provides a relaxed counterpoint of melody to the gnashing guitar lines in both those numbers. But there are times when he seeks to convey a desperation that has no room for melody. "Just my luck/I got a hole in my heart the size of a truck," he howls in "Like a Possum," as the guitars howl back for a full 18 minutes.

"Like a Possum," the romping finale "Big Sky," and the molten opening of "White Prism" do flash back to Reed's '60s prime with the Velvet Underground. That's only natural. After all, noisy Velvets soirees like "Sister Ray," "White Light/White Heat," and "Waiting for My Man" along with a handful of early solo numbers including "Satellite of Love" and his sole pop hit, 1973's "Walk on the Wild Side," made him a rock-and-roll saint -- albeit a reasonably evil one. But the B.B. King licks that Reed nicks to tear open the wounded hearts in his crashing love-on-the-rocks number "Tatters" and his use of Memphis-style horns and Laurie Anderson's violin to sweeten rough-hewn grooves are musical impulses as new to Reed as the gentleness he brings to Ecstasy's sentimental ballad "Turning Time Around." That song is nearly a summation of Ecstasy, a soft explosion of foibles, phobias, and frustrations that makes us feel the weak spots in every union, the uneasy self-consciousness that's the downside of our effort to be enlightened in our roles as men and women. "Turning Time Around" also trumpets that it's love's ephemeral nature that makes it both so elusive and desirable.

That's a lot to convey in 4:22. But now that he's 56, it's what we should expect from an artist as influential as Reed, whose last studio album, '96's Set the Twilight Reeling, tried to foist on us a paean to egg creams as a single. Ecstasy's less frothy, more filling. Dig in.

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