Like every one of Lou Reed’s albums, Legendary Hearts demands of its listener a commitment far greater and certainly more discomforting than that of the average record. Its sound is even more skeletal than that of last year’s The Blue Mask, and though some wry, tuneful flourishes are scattered among these eleven new songs, the only hooks are twisted lyrical barbs like this one from “Home of the Brave”: “A man’s kicking a woman/Who’s clutching his leg tight/And I think suddenly of you/And blink my eyes in fright.” That arrogant severity and unflinching honesty, however, are the very qualities that make Reed’s fourteenth LP one of the singer-guitarist’s most powerful solo statements — or, if you will, understatements. The gray nakedness of the performances and frayed lyrical nerves of the songs underline the familial tension, romantic hurt and emotional desperation pumping through Legendary Hearts. This is Reed’s own Scenes from a Marriage (no doubt drawn from his own, at least in part), an extended play of the heart in which he savages the myth of moon/June/croon-type love.
“No legendary love/Is coming from above,” Reed declares with quiet urgency in the title song, a brooding ballad that opens the album. Indeed, the breadwinner in “Don’t Talk to Me about Work” gets his revenge after a bad day at the office, while the cops have to bust up a domestic squall in “Martial Law.” Even the I’m-going-straight resolution at the end of “The Last Shot” is clouded by hard liquor, blood on the wall and intimations of suicide.
But where there’s fire, there’s warmth, too. Beyond the heat of anger in “Bottoming Out” — a descent into booze and manic motorcycle rides that follows the bitter sting of “Betrayed” — there’s the glow of a close, romantic dance (“Pow Wow”) and sweet nothings whispered in reassuring privacy (“Rooftop Garden”). The brief reference to the Drifters’ “Up on the Roof” in the latter song may be Reed’s concession that while there are no legendary loves, legendary love songs are a wonderful inspiration.
The songs on Legendary Hearts are really more like snatches of cinéma vérité, shot in documentary black and white by Reed with a band — guitarist Robert Quine, bassist Fernando Saunders and drummer Fred Maher — that radiates the bold minimalist power of a New Wave Crazy Horse. They don’t get much chance to rock out (“Make Up Mind” does suggest the chamber-folk grace of the Velvets’ third LP), and Quine takes far too few solos. But in its uncompromising frankness and harsh emotional thrust, Legendary Hearts will probably be the hardest rock album you’ll hear all year.