This review originally ran in Rolling Stone as part of a series that looked back at classic albums.
Lou Reed practically invented rock perversion. With the Velvet Underground, he wrote pioneering songs about S&M, drag queens and “Heroin.” So by 1982, what was the only shocking stance left for him? “I’m just your average guy,” Reed sang. “I’m average-looking/And I’m average inside.”
The mundane suited Reed. On The Blue Mask, he sings about domestic bliss at his country home (“My House”), remembers what he was doing on a November 1963 afternoon (“The Day John Kennedy Died”) and even declares himself as a bread-and-butter heterosexual (“Women”). He transforms “Heroin” into “The Heroine,” praising the bravery of a woman rather than the pleasures of shooting up. Wiping clean a decade of ever-more-desperate provocation, Reed lets the casual poetry of his songs shine again.
The album’s offhand sound matches its conversational lyrics. Reed had finally found the musical foil he had needed since John Cale quit the Velvets: Robert Quine. Also famed for his work with Richard Hell (and later Matthew Sweet), Quine, who died earlier this year, was an inventive, electrifying guitarist — and he had grown up bootlegging Velvet Underground shows. He encouraged Reed to play more guitar; The Blue Mask is almost all live takes, with Quine’s guitar on your left speaker, Reed’s guitar on the right.
“One thing that’s crucial is that I listen to the lyrics,” said Quine. “‘Waves of Fear,’ if it had been about making an egg cream, my solo would be different than a guy having a nervous breakdown.” In fact, “Waves of Fear” is four astounding minutes of psychosis: While Reed shouts, “Crazy with sweat/Spittle on my jaw,” the band finally cuts loose, swooping on the song like a hawk on its prey. The paranoia feels as real and specific as the Canada geese at Reed’s country home, which makes it twice as scary.