Lou Reed's the Blue Mask is a great record, and its genius is at once so simple and unusual that the only appropriate reaction is wonder. Who expected anything like this from Reed at this late stage of the game? Even though the Velvet Underground, as critic Lester Bangs once remarked, "invented the Seventies," Reed had as much trouble as anyone else in trying to navigate the decade's actuality. By its end, he seemed to have just about removed himself from rock & roll for good. Street Hassle, brave and brilliant as it was, had the melancholy and deadly feel of a testament. Its sequel, The Bells, while musically challenging and emotionally acute, was nevertheless the first Lou Reed album that sounded more cerebral than autobiographical. The artist seemed content to become an old master, admirable without being vital.
Then Reed entered into a marriage that, by all appearances, has been a source of profound and genuine bliss — which, in his case, seems especially miraculous. Unfortunately, his first try at describing what that relationship means to him, Growing Up in Public, was a lackadaisical effort: not dishonest but slovenly. In retrospect, though, you can hear the beginnings of the move toward the seemingly artless directness of style and approach that pays off so richly on The Blue Mask.
Reed's marriage and the new life it's given him are absolutely central to the current LP, and here his happiness is transformed into renewed aesthetic inspiration. He cares about his work now because it has to do justice to that life, as fully as the Velvet Underground's music did justice to Joseph Conrad's "the horror, the horror." Evocations of Reed's present-day serenity frame The Blue Mask. "My House" movingly completes a cycle begun by the dedication of "European Son" to poet Delmore Schwartz (way back on the first Velvets record) by calling up Schwartz' memory to bless a domestic calm that smolders into a quiet magnificence at song's end. The wonderfully unrestrained finale, "Heavenly Arms" — an unabashed love song to Reed's wife, Sylvia — suggests that if the Velvet Underground emerged partly out of an adolescent rage that the world as promised by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons was a lie, Lou Reed, as much as any of us, still wanted nothing more than to be able to make a Four Seasons tune come true.
Instead of denying all of the other things he's been, the peace of mind that makes a "My House" possible simultaneously allows each facet of Reed's jangled art to fall into place at last, undistorted by irony. (The Blue Mask is the least ironic album Reed's ever made, and maybe one of the least ironic anybody's ever made.) Amazingly, the intimacy and warmth of "Women" — here conveyed by a play of casual jokes — can exist on the same LP with the chillingly quiet terror of "The Gun" in much the same way that things fit together for a man comfortably wandering among the bric-a-brac of his own attic.
Reed means to express plain truths and, with the unselfconsciousness that comes only when the mastery of craft is wedded to a surety of vision, has rediscovered the most straightforward and unadorned means of doing so. "Underneath the Bottle" is one of the funniest and truest numbers about drinking ever written. It turns tragedy into a pratfall, then makes that pratfall a real tragedy. Yet it's constructed from the homeliest and most offhand materials possible. For "The Heroine," the artist reaches back to Victorian doggerel, because its archaic courtliness exactly evokes his sweetly grave sense of wonder that his statue of love actually jumped off a pedestal and moved to Jersey with him. The Sixties-folk echoes of "The Day John Kennedy Died," so distant they sound overheard, mirror the irreconcilability of sentiment and truth that's the song's point — and the other side of the coin from "The Heroine." Such moves may demand great formal daring, but they succeed because they come across as natural and necessary.
In terms of economy of language, unforced aptness of expression and seemingly stray rough colloquialism burnished into poetry, Lou Reed hasn't written this well since "Some Kinda Love" or "Pale Blue Eyes." Listen to how "shakes" and "shucks" play leapfrog in "Underneath the Bottle," and note the mimetic lurch of the same tune's "Things go from bad to weird." In "The Day John Kennedy Died," images of the killing get progressively uglier as Reed's daydreaming grows more ethereal, until the final brutality of "I dreamed I could somehow comprehend that someone shot him in the face" slaps you back into the world as shockingly as a sick joke. The Blue Mask's structure is also functionally brilliant: the two sides mimic and reflect each other, and the compositions refract among themselves, the theme of one reverberating as an echo in another.
But the sound of the music is what's most definitive. Reed put together a small, street-hungry combo, played half the guitar parts himself and cut the tracks fast. Grace has never sounded so tough-minded. The intuitive responsiveness between Lou Reed and Robert Quine is a quiet summit of guitarists' interplay: the notes and noise soar and dive, scudding almost formlessly until they're suddenly caught up in the focus of a rhythm. The astonishing empathy of Fernando Saunders' bass either rocks the songs like a cradle or grounds them like a wire.
In the ferocious vortex of the title tune, the music attains its apotheosis. As Reed's singing grows more brutally desperate, launching an unbelievably black attack on those who would play at the edge of a fake abyss even as he reaches down to the bottom of his real one, the guitars groan and sway all around him. Then they grind to a deadening screech while the drums stiffen into a blank lockstep — and Sister Ray herself, the grinning death's-head of the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat, slowly rises before your eyes. Nothing, really nothing, can convey the grandeur of that moment. But then nothing can convey the rapture of "Heavenly Arms," either. "Heavenly Arms" rescues romance from the brink of the same nightmare, then celebrates the Reeds' love all the more deliriously for it.
With The Blue Mask, Lou Reed has done what even John Lennon couldn't do: he's put his Plastic Ono Band and his Double Fantasy on the same record, and made us feel that, at long last, these two paths in him are joined.