On the first couple of spins, Mistrial does not sound like a Lou Reed album that will make rock and roll history. It does sound like it could make quite a bit of money. Most of these ten Reed originals are straight-ahead commercial rockers with crafty hooks, sharp, uncluttered arrangements and Reed's usual razorback guitars carefully sanded down to create a sleeker metallic buzz—in other words, ideal for AOR and Top Forty consumption. Certainly, compared with the epic fear and loathing of Reed's first recordings with the Velvet Underground, the double-edged glitter-rock camp of his 1972 hit 'Transformer' and his recent harrowing love cycles The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts, Mistrial seems unusually normal, almost passive.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It may take a few extra listens to kick in, but Mistrial, Lou Reed's eighteenth solo album in fourteen years and the follow-up to his '84 near hit New Sensations, is invigorating, aggressive pop, as enjoyable for its bright, churning surface as for its thoughtful, often pungent lyric core. Although as a song-writer he's most famous for his graphic documentation of New York's Warholian pop-sex-drug-art fringe, Reed actually got his start in the mid-Sixties as an in-house hack for Pickwick music publishing, cranking out quickie Xeroxes of then current Top Forty styles. That crash course in chart formulas proved invaluable; Reed classics like "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll" had everything it takes to be hits except promotion — simple, radiant choruses; meaty, upbeat arrangements; pithy, inspirational verses ("Despite all the amputations/You know you could just go out and dance to the rock & roll station/And it was all right," from "Rock and Roll").
In that basic commercial sense, Mistrial is classic Reed, reminiscent of Coney Island Baby's lighthearted swing. "I Remember You" gently bumps and grinds to a sunny, circular guitar hook, fleshed out with gently colliding lead guitars and cozy male vocal harmonies by salsa superstar Rubèn Blades and Reed's bassist and co-producer, Fernando Saunders. "No Money Down," the album's sassy flagship single, takes off with a brisk electronic drum program accented by Reed's rippling guitar and a high-spirited guitar-sax reveille.
"I know you're disappointed/In the way I handled things/You're thinking I misread the times/And acted cowardly," he sings at the beginning of "No Money Down" in that familiar deadpan voice, as if in reply to critics who feel that Reed, 44 and happily married, has gone a little soft, writing about true romance instead of street hassles. Yet the warmth and hopefulness of songs like "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "Pale Blue Eyes," from the first and third Velvets albums, has always been as much a part of the Reed oeuvre as sleaze and smack. "Tell It to Your Heart," the sweet ballad that climaxes Mistrial, definitely ranks as one of Reed's great love songs — earnest and vulnerable but hardly gushy. It is surprisingly pragmatic in tone ("We're no teenage movie/That ends in tragedy"), but its languid pace and the distant whisper of Blades and Saunders's Temptations-like harmonies vividly capture the singer's restless wandering through New York streets just before dawn.
Mistrial, as you might expect, is also long on attitude. "Don't mean to come on/Sanctimonious/But life's got me nervous/And a little pugnacious," Reed snaps in his white-metal rap number "The Original Wrapper." There's certainly no mistaking the Rock 'n' Roll Animal wallop of the album's title song, with its death-march thump and the edgy menace of Reed's crawling-king-snake guitar solo. He drills his point home with insistent, hammering lead guitar in "Video Violence," a slicked-up "Sister Ray" slammer about TV sex-and-bloodshed and its roots in basic human instinct — "The currents rage so deep inside us.... No age of reason is landing upon us."
The album's surprise one-two punch is a "Sweet Jane"-style stomp called "Mama's Got a Lover," an especially poisonous complaint by a young kid whose mother has taken up with a pseudo-hip art-scene Romeo. On one level, the song is a flippant swipe at transparent New York cool ("He says he's into dirt and rot/The essence of 'urban decay' "). But Reed's caustic, almost disinterested guitar solo mirrors the youngster's distrust of the man and this unwanted change in his mother. "She's starting a new chapter," Reed observes at the end with an acidic ho-hum. "I wish she was on the last page."
For Reed, Mistrial isn't exactly a new chapter, and considering the unpredictability of his solo output over the years, it's unlikely to be his last page. It is, without question, thoroughly enjoyable and typically provocative, a lively, stylish reprise of his eccentric rock & roll classicism (although his overreliance on synthetic drums takes some of the primal zip out of numbers like "Spit It Out"). "Now I have known a hero or two/And they all learn to swim through mud," Reed sings in "No Money Down," and he could easily be referring to himself, the punk-rock godfather who dared to dive into the slime and lived to write some incredible — at times immortal — songs about it. Mistrial may not have the same clear immediate ring of immortality as, say, Loaded or Street Hassle, but rest assured it's all the Reed you need for right here and now.
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