After you've devoted an entire album to the ultimate concept — death and the mourning after — what do you do for an encore? If you're from New York and you're Lou Reed, you write about the kind of small pleasure that makes life amid the ruins worthwhile: the magic and luster of a good chocolate egg cream. Only Reed could invest a song about 50 cents' worth of seltzer and syrup with roiling guitar and almost corny vocal zeal ("You scream, I steam, we all want egg cream!") and put it at the beginning of a record about emotional renewal and personal discovery.
Then again, Reed has been singing about rebirth since "Beginning to See the Light," on the third Velvet Underground album, and the only difference between his egg cream jones and the hard-core addiction he dramatized in "Heroin" is one of degree. He's still talking about overwhelming need and desperate fulfillment.
Set the Twilight Reeling does not boast either the narrative grip of Reed's 1992 mortality suite, Magic and Loss, or the high-velocity wordplay of 1989's New York. But Twilight is, in its shotgun way, strong, convincing Reed: prickly, confessional, poisonously funny, unabashedly romantic. And it gets under your skin in a cumulative way. The Motown-by-candlelight intonation of Reed's twangy guitar and whispery vocal is a model of minimalist soul. Reprising the rhythm from "Walk on the Wild Side" in "NYC Man" may seem like a sucker-bait play, but the familiar attitude shuffle and slightly sour horns suit the underlying bitterness in Reed's tough-guy adieu. His kick in the right-wing nuts, "Sex With Your Parents (Motherfucker) Part II," is more like a comic intermission, but nobody else in rock & roll says the M word with more drop-dead class.
Reed has dedicated Set the Twilight Reeling to his paramour, Laurie Anderson, and he is not embarrassed to step up to the kissing booth in either the doofy chorus of "Hooky Wooky" or the wry wooing of "The Proposition" ("But just like a bulb screws into a lamp/And we were meant to be"). The album, however, is less about consummation than transformation and its consequences — for better and worse. The austere R&B pledge of troth "Trade In" is mined with loathing and self-incrimination. With its Loaded-era guitars and Berlin-style fatalism, "The Adventurer" is lucent pop with a tart aftertaste, a song of poignant admiration and pointed leaving.
Reed has been a changed man on record so many times, it's easy to mistake sincerity for shtick. But the central image in the closing, elegiac title track of a soul singer in mid-epiphany — "But as the drums beat, he finds himself growing hard/In the microphone's face he sees her face growing large.... I accept the newfound man and set the twilight reeling" — has the ring of truth and the distinct kick of autobiography. And when you get right down to it, true love and a new day rising are both a lot like a good egg cream: sweet relief.