In the nineties, Lou Reed re-created himself as a cultural commodity. He did independent films and avant-garde operas. He published volumes of lyrics and a diary in The New Yorker. He was declared an “American Master” by PBS. He played arts festivals and the White House and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Seen everywhere with inamorata-collaborator Laurie Anderson, the man who invented rock as “decadence” became the respectable face of rock as “art form,” extolled by tastemakers who wouldn’t know Pavement from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Reed set up this self-promotion with three well-received, manifestly artistic albums — 1989’s political New York; 1990’s John Cale-co-written Andy Warhol cycle, Songs for Drella; and 1992’s serious-as-death-and-the-Grammys Magic and Loss. Yet his subsequent output — 1996’s Set the Twilight Reeling and 1998’s live Perfect Night — generated little rock & roll credibility. Always annoying when he dished out random insults, he wasn’t any more likable when he pontificated. So who inside the rock world was gonna argue that he was still on the edge of something? Basically, he wasn’t.
But as Reed gets what he wanted and loses what he had, fans are missing some of his strongest music ever. The live album was his best (of many) since 1974’s Rock & Roll Animal, and Twilight, pigeonholed as his love offering to Laurie, was beyond that a daring guitarorama and a full-bodied, uniquely consistent excursion into the throwaway hodgepodge mode that yielded so many keepers in his neglected Seventies work. Ecstasy is even more impressive. Dominated emotionally by dark songs about extreme sex and relationships gone sour, it will once again be linked to Anderson, even though many of its details diverge radically from what everyone knows about the couple’s life together — that they have no children, for instance. Resist the impulse to turn music into gossip and hear Ecstasy for what it is — a complex, musically gorgeous synthesis of the obsessions that powered Reed’s failed 1973 Berlin and his great marriage albums of the early Eighties, especially The Blue Mask.
Since happy love is much rarer in good art than it is in good lives, Twilight remains moderately miraculous — far from innocent of struggle and doubt, it’s nevertheless the most openhearted, sweet-tempered record Reed has ever put out there. It was only a moment, though, and on Ecstasy he says hello to his old demons. Masking profound rage with bitchy back talk, Reed’s romantic egotism has always doomed his personal and artistic commitments — he needs new sensations. But perhaps because he’s put in two decades as an attempted mensch, first with ex-wife Sylvia Morales and then with Anderson, his demons now sometimes seem more like daemons, geniuses, as on the passionately impenetrable title song, which is about a soul-shaking sexual adventure by or with a mythified someone who could be rough trade or a prominent New York performance artist. On the amazing “Mad,” Lou’s tirade after he’s caught cheating — “You said you’re out of town for the night/And I believed in you/I believed you” — lays open the asshole he knows himself to be without apologizing for his base-line arrogance. And the impossible marriages of “Tatters” and “Baton Rouge,” both carefully fictionalized, are sketched with the kind of intimate incidental detail only appreciated by someone who has learned from experience how specific relationships are.
Add several paeans to the perverse — among them a hopeless declaration of sexual indenture and a moaned and shouted eighteen-minute noisefest, and three off-message changes of pace that include a slave’s freedom rant and an upliftingly spiritual closer — and the complexity of Reed’s conception should be clear. Words, however, are truly only half of it. Understandably, Reed’s old fascination with sadomasochistic transcendence puts off those who don’t swing that way at least a little. But the music on this record, its gorgeous part, could change that.
Together with his longtime guitarist Mike Rathke and the ever-more-fluid bassist Fernando Saunders, Reed has gradually adjusted his trademark minimalism toward a body-friendly responsiveness. The guitar hooks on “Mad” and “Ecstasy,” far less trebly and staccato than the Velvet Underground norm, render those demented statements rather beautiful — touching and vulnerable alongside hateful and proud. And while the timbre of Reed’s Sprechgesang will never again be as supple as in his moments of youthful lyricism, like “Pale Blue Eyes,” his sere thoughtfulness here is at least as tender — his perspective seems like mature understanding rather than neurotic distance. If rock is to be an art form — and, come on, it’s earned the option — best it should honor life’s physical reality as unmistakably as this music does. Let his fellow big shots respect him. Us guys’ll just give him R-E-S-P-E-C-T.