Appreciating Lou Reed’s latest album, The Raven, requires a couple of sacrifices. First, forget your high school introduction to Edgar Allan Poe. Screw the literary canon and all its prescribed bullshit. Second, be prepared to want it. Like an urge for a cruel ex-lover, you must embrace your insecurity for (at least) the duration of 21 songs.
“What this album is about is really my fascination with why we are drawn to things we know are bad for us,” Reed says from his Manhattan home.
The Raven, which examines the works of Poe, is part homage, part collaboration. He sings, “These are the stories of Edgar Allan Poe/ not exactly the boy next door/ he’ll tell you tales of horror and then he’ll play with your mind/ if you haven’t heard of him, you must be deaf or blind.”
Understanding compulsion — Desdemona to Othello, Sid to Nancy, the endomorph to the Twinkie, the asshole to the insult — is germane to understanding why this album and tour matter.
Reed manages to put a new face on Poe’s classic words. He asks, “Do you know why the character at the end of ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ finally admits to his crime?” It is not guilt or paranoia as this journo suggests. “He doesn’t feel guilty at all. He’s pissed off — he thinks that the cop can hear his heart beating through his chest. He actually says ‘Do you mock me?’”
Critics have routinely snubbed Reed’s works until well after their release dates. And the 61-year-old is often pigeonholed as an avant-garde icon. Hearing adoring and scathing criticism — sometimes simultaneously — has simply become part of the deal. The insecurity of many of Poe’s characters is something with which Reed is well acquainted.
“Lucky, huh?” says Reed coyly of The Raven’s all-star stable of contributors, including Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Elizabeth Ashley, David Bowie and longtime girlfriend Laurie Anderson. “Well I guess it’s New York — artists all know each other here.”
He takes unabashed license with Poe’s words; the title track contains such Reedisms as, “Sweaty, arrogant, dickless liar” and “my respite through cocaine’s glory.” Reed’s acrid lyrics and Dafoe’s effectual delivery fairly assault the listener.
Yet the album is not a gothic exercise in gloom and doom. It is quite the opposite. Ranging from explosive blues and rock ’n’ roll to heart-wrenching confessionals, The Raven is nothing short of exhausting. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, a tune like “Broadway Song” pops up to kick your ass. (It’s sung by the lovably kooky Steve Buscemi in the manner of a smarmy lounge singer.)
“Who I Am? (Triptena’s Song)” is hauntingly innocent: “A younger man now getting old/ I have to wonder what the rest of life will hold/ I hold a mirror to my face/ there are some lines I could trace/ to memories of loving you.”
The Raven is not Reed’s first foray into literature. His lyrics alone have been considered (and published as) works of art. The deeply hypnotic VU song, “Venus in Furs” (The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967), for example, was adapted from the cult classic by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whom the term “masochist” was derived.
It just goes to show that you never know what will inspire you. In the case of Reed, who claims he would “rather be a rhythm guitar player than a god,” you know there is visceral meaning to the message.
Asked how he plans to bring this enormous undertaking to the stage, he promptly responds, “It’s just musicians, music and words.”
I guess it always was just that. Some just do it better than others.
Lou Reed will perform new pieces from The Raven, and classic Velvet Underground songs, Saturday, June 14, at St. Andrew’s Hall (431 E. Congress, Detroit). Call 313-961-MELT for tickets.Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]