Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Professional Pervert

Auteur of four epochal, enduring, sonically individual Velvet Underground albums before he turned 29, Lou Reed has now spent 25 years creating a perversely unreliable, perversely professional solo oeuvre. This oeuvre is marked by random peaks that rarely rise to and never sustain the ear-popping altitude of whatever VU opus fulfills your desires. Yet somehow Reed has gained focus and consistency instead of petering, burning, or checking out. Set the Twilight Reeling is Reed's 18th solo studio album, and like most of those that succeeded 1982's Robert Quine-catalyzed, Sylvia Reed-stabilized benchmark, The Blue Mask, it's superior to most of those that came before. Straying only slightly from Reed's post-Quine guitar-bass-and-drums formalism, it's certain to be remembered as a love offering to Laurie Anderson, with whom he's been linked since around the time his 1980 marriage to Sylvia fell apart in 1993; at least five and perhaps seven or eight of the 11 songs invoke the first romantic coequal he's ever gone public with. But such speculations only take us so far. The lead track, which sets its own tone by kicking more ass than any solo music he's recorded since joining Warners in 1988, is a nostalgic paean to that New York Jewish elixir, the egg cream. Anderson is a goy from Illinois.

Reed may conceivably be a great artist, but treating him like one has never done much for his faithful. Where patently wrong-headed biographers Victor Bockris (Transformer: The Lou Reed Story) and Peter Doggett (Lou Reed: Growing Up in Public) distort his music through art-world and lit-class prisms, impassioned critics Lester Bangs and Ellen Willis end up making him their mirror, obsessing on themes of transgression and redemption that compel them more deeply than they do their antihero. The saner option (one Bangs tried but was too big-hearted to stick with) is not to take Lou so goddamn seriously. Follow the man's example and explicit warnings--as on Take No Prisoners, a 1978 comedy album interrupted by dumb-to-excruciating music (schlock-rock "Pale Blue Eyes," what a moron): "I am not trustworthy . . . I know it"--and come to his music armed with aesthetic distance and extreme personal skepticism. Only then can you safely indulge in the identification his hyperactive image manipulation, confessional singer-songwriter usages, and, for all I know, genuine shows of emotion will sooner or later induce in anyone who can hear him at all.

The Reed I'm a permanent sucker for inhabits the 1969 album he commandeered after blowing off designated cogenius John Cale. A de facto solo debut that's unimaginable without Moe Tucker or even Doug Yule, The Velvet Underground is as soft and '60s as this indubitably avant-punk, ineluctably hippie-era band ever got. Its quizzical sweetness, palpable warmth, playful obscurity, and hopes for, that's right, redemption comprise an inspired preliminary probe of the familiar emotions Reed's music has seesawed toward ever since he declared himself an "Average Guy" on The Blue Mask. This embrace of the liberal-het norm outrages and befuddles devotees of Warhol's hanger-on freak show, who were more comfortable with the mercurial genderfucks and death-defying substance abuse of Reed's spell as a struggling '70s rock star. But though it would be nice if the cynic who wrote love songs to a transvestite before maturing into an extremely married spirit of pure poetry could find it in himself to comprehend his own sexual contradictions, it would be silly to elevate this item on a wish list into an aesthetic imperative. Reed's contribution to world culture has virtually nothing to do with content. It's about language--verbal language, musical language, and how they mesh.

What's most instructive about Bockris's bio, which in the absence of available dish actually researches Reed's youth (hey, I wanted to know that "Pale Blue Eyes" is about a last fling with a college flame), is its account of his early career--not just his brief stint in a song factory concocting cheapjack dance crazes and musical Beatle wigs, redolent though that image is of Mistrial (weak record) and Sally Can't Dance (pretty good one), but his long bar-r&b experience with bands from Freeport to Syracuse. Like Doggett, you can valorize his undergraduate worship of Delmore Schwartz (whose artistic achievement, unlike Warhol's, Reed has long since surpassed) and the stray 1979 quote where he set his sights on Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. Or like Bockris, you can attribute half the Velvets' pizzazz to John Cale's dropout apprenticeship with LaMonte Young and assume Reed has lost it because he no longer writes songs as profound as "Venus in Furs." Me, I just figure his life was saved by rock and roll.

The core of Reed's sensibility is his visceral aversion to corn. This isn't to deny his goopy side--part of him does wish ladies still rolled their eyes, and "spirit of pure poetry" is his phrase, not mine. But over and above his New York sarcasm and the all he's seen, Reed seems possessed by aesthetic distance. He's never more powerful than when his rock and roll heart transcends his detachment without rejecting it--in cruel yet compassionate touchstones like "Street Hassle" or "The Kids." Usually, however, he settles for something homelier. Whether the topic at hand is joysticks or jealousy or nuclear holocaust or dirty boulevards or ouija boards or s&m or love l-u-v, his pointedly flat plainspeech is more meaningful and evocative per se than his forays into imagery. And what he took away from his apprenticeship with the El Dorados and Pickwick International is just as conversational--an intimate knowledge of the vernacular chords of r&b, adjusted to a deadpan sprechgesang that excised any hint of the soulful expressionism toward which every other white band of the era aspired. Formally, there's an acceptance and a reflexively democratic respect built into this approach that more than counteracts Reed's pretensions and his equally reflexive if visibly diminishing mean-spiritedness. It's equally well-suited to s&m and love l-u-v, to transgression and redemption and just getting by.

Because its substratum is so sturdy, the music rarely sinks below an acceptable level--even his hopelessly inappropriate '70s soul girls survive as amusing distractions, although some of his musicians and stentorian vocal affectations have met unhappier ends. This is one reason his good intentions (generously assuming he can be trusted to tell us--or know--what they are) don't guarantee exceptional music; his pretensions are another. Berlin (which never got near the conceptual grandeur he and his acolytes claimed for it) and Street Hassle (magnificent title song, outrageous "I Wanna Be Black," unfun "Real Good Time Together," substandard filler) are no solider than the cynical Sally Can't Dance or the expedient Coney Island Baby, and on his triumphant Quine-and-Sylvia triptych, the throwaways often say more than the major statements and the album where he mixed Quine down and the one where he fired him altogether are as satisfying as the one where Quine reintroduced him to his guitar if not his entire musical conception. The Warner period has been all good intentions, with the Cale collaboration Songs for Drella what it claimed to be, the socially conscious New York so sharp guitarwise you can ignore the banality of its generalizations, and the purely poetic mortality meditation Magic and Loss his dullest effort since Mistrial if not Lou Reed Live. Which is why the unkempt gestalt of Set the Twilight Reeling is oddly encouraging.

The tenor here is reflective rather than descriptive, not Reed's long suit, and he gives every sign that he finds loving an artist who deserves as much attention as he does even tougher to write about than to do. Hence, putative throwaways like "Egg Cream" and "HookyWooky" and "Sex With Your Parents" are the instant winners. But once they're absorbed the record doesn't quit. Longtime collaborator Fernando Saunders squeezes sublime guitar noises out of his bass, and Reed himself plays the farthest-reaching guitar of his solo career, most spectacularly on the eight-minute "Riptide" and the climactic title track right after. And eventually, "Trade In," whose "woman with a thousand faces" is presumably Anderson, and "Hang On to Your Emotions," which could have been inspired by true love or a catty review or a shrink, breathe a clearer wisdom than anything on Magic and Loss. More than once, in fact, Reed declares himself reborn. I'll believe that when the placenta comes back from the pathologist. But I'm impressed enough to wonder how his 36th solo studio job might sound, long about 2021.

Village Voice, Mar. 19, 1996