Lou Reed has called The Raven “a movie for the mind,” and that description just begins to capture this double CD’s phantasmagoric impact. Though it’s based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven is less a strictly literary or musical work than a dreamlike evocation of Poe’s obsessions: loss, guilt, violence, self-destruction and failed bids for redemption. Of course, those have been Reed’s own obsessions for more than three decades. It’s an artistic marriage that could hardly have been made in heaven — the album’s demonic power clearly emanates from the fires down below.
In that subversive spirit, The Raven will confound purists of every stripe. Most provocatively, Reed is far more faithful to the spirit than to the letter of Poe’s work. He stirs verses from “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells” and The Fall of the House of Usher into a hallucinogenic stew, boldly altering Poe’s language and adding his own as impulse dictates. On the other hand, the readings by actors such as Willem Dafoe, Elizabeth Ashley and Amanda Plummer — not to mention the serene deconstruction of Reed’s “Perfect Day” by the otherworldly singer Antony — will bewilder the rock & roll animals among Reed’s following. (The more song-oriented single-disc version of The Raven, also out in January, is somewhat more palatable.)
Open-minded listeners, however, will revel in The Raven‘s impurities, its Poe-like perversions. Heaven and hell collide in Reed’s raucous duet with the Blind Boys of Alabama on “I Wanna Know (The Pit and the Pendulum),” and he revisits the purgative roar of Metal Machine Music on the instrumental “Fire Music.” On “Who Am I? (Tripitena’s Song),” meanwhile, he delivers some of the most personal lyrics of his career. “One thinks of what one hoped to be,” he sings, “and then faces reality.” The reality here is that Reed has once again stretched the boundaries of popular music and, in doing so, has honored Edgar Allan Poe’s illustrious legacy, along with his own.