Lou Reed’s career is a mystery on at least two levels. The first, of course, is the series of artistic tangents and blind alleys he’s caromed down at one point or another since his emergence with the Velvet Underground in the 1960s. In a more meta sense, though, the larger mystery is that he still has a career at all, at least on a major record label. He’s never been anything like a sure, or even safe, commercial bet. RCA sponsored Reed through the 1970s, a decade in which he released one successful album (Transformer), two good ones (Berlin and the live Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal), and a string of records that ranged from the merely competent (Coney Island Baby) to the calculatedly offensive. The latter group included the song "I Wanna Be Black," the infamous noisefest Metal Machine Music and another live recording, Take No Prisoners, on which he spent as much time berating his critics as playing his music. Only near the end of his tenure with the label did Reed release anything which even approached the level of his Velvet Underground work: a pair of back-to-back albums, The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts, which found him fronting a tasteful but still rocking band and writing some of the best lyrics of his career.
Since the late 1980s, Reed has been on another major label, Warners, shuttling around between a few of its divisions (Sire, Reprise). Virtually every record he’s made for them has been in some respect autumnal and more than a little cranky. This has led him down some side roads, of course; one was New York, an exploration of metropolitan entropy regarded by some as his greatest solo album, despite its now-dated topical lyrics. But for the most part, his former preoccupation with the race toward self-destruction has been replaced with a fixation on death, both as it claims others and as it closes in on him. This was the basis for his reunion with Velvet Underground partner John Cale on the Andy Warhol eulogy album Songs For Drella, and his 1992 album Magic and Loss. On his latest record, The Raven, Reed has combined his obsessions with self-destruction and inevitable death into an album which attempts to link his own songs with the writing of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s not a seamless fit and, unsurprisingly, Reed comes out looking the worse for the inevitable comparison. His command of language is simply nowhere near the equal of Poe’s. Even at his artistic peak in the 1970s, Reed always cultivated a plain-spokenness which has by now devolved into mere grumbling. He seems to feel that listing the decadent effects of time on the body and mind is enough; whatever insights he may have gained from his decrepitude are largely withheld from the listener. And the song "Edgar Allan Poe," which consists of a single, monotonous guitar riff and the repeated chant "This is the story of Edgar Allan Poe/Not exactly the boy next door," is simply an embarrassment. By contrast, the readings from Poe—by actors Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe, among others, and accompanied by Reed’s music—are terrific, and would have made a great album all by themselves.
Not every song here is a failure. "Blind Rage," which appears early on Disc Two, is a noisy guitar-rock track. "Broadway Song," which opens the same disc, is utterly bizarre: sung by Steve Buscemi, it’s a tribute to showbiz done in a lounge arrangement complete with cheesy horns. "Guilty" features the saxophonist Ornette Coleman, which would make it by default the best song on the record even if it was boring or uninspired–and it’s not. Ornette’s playing is brilliant, especially when he accompanies Reed’s croaking vocals, creating a melody the singer can only approximate and dancing around him with endless, inspired variations on it.
The Raven is an interesting idea. Lou Reed has had lots of interesting ideas over the years. Unfortunately, there have only been perhaps a half dozen occasions when the execution has lived up to the potential, and this isn’t one of them. It’s not a total loss; hardcore fans will certainly find a few gleaming nuggets amid the slurry. But it’s nothing a neophyte needs to be concerned with, just one more tangent along the way to wherever Reed is going. And like so many of his previous records, it’s totally, wilfully uncommercial.