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Hardened Velvet

Lou Reed
Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Reed 'Em and Weep: Lou Reed has turned pompous and verbose in his dotage.

Lou Reed sets the twilight reeling on his new album

By Gina Arnold

Remember that old saw from Brownies and Bluebirds that goes "Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold"? Pretty as that sentiment is, it sometimes presents a problem to critics confronted by the aged spectre of their once-beloved artists, especially those who've grown monstrously too big for their britches but who expect to be treated as though they were as brilliant as of old.

The career of Lou Reed creates just such a dilemma for rock critics who would dearly like to give credit to the genre's most innovative and influential artists. The problem is, Reed has pretty much been insufferable ever since releasing Metal Machine Music in 1975.

That album was an unlistenable pastiche of feedback, tape loops and squall, but it has had an unfortunate effect both on would-be avant-garde rock bands and on Reed himself, who has subsequently believed his own bullshit to quite an astonishing extent.

Although co-founder of one of the most beloved of all modern rock bands, Reed, in his solo career, has emphasized the most unappetizing aspects of his personality. More often than not, his work reeks of pretension and pomposity, and his latest release, Set the Twilight Reeling (Warner Bros.), is no exception. From its high school "po'try-type" title to its illegible dark blue packaging, the work pounds on the idea that Reed is some kind of untouchable literary giant.

That's all very well and good if you buy that vision of the man, or if you're such a firm believer in the "keep the old/gold" school of loyalty that you're willing to forgo a bout of monumental egotism. But if you don't, the record may make you a little bit queasy.

Reed has, of course, always had a high opinion of his own worth, and no wonder: his first band, the Velvet Underground, was practically predicated on pretentiousness and pomposity (as was Andy Warhol, the band's mentor). In the context of a mid-'60s New York City art world trying to shake off the doltish complacency of the status quo, however, those traits were probably less obtrusive. After all, it was Velvet Underground's then-novel contention that rock & roll was art, and in order to get that point across, a bit of pretension may well have been in order.

Besides, the Velvet Underground was primarily about music and image. The band's churning electric guitars, sustained narratives and posy, glamorized view of the (then) new realities of urban life--homelessness, drug addiction, etc.--was sonically as well as imagistically groundbreaking and utterly antithetical to the hippies' peace, love and understanding hypocrisy--as well as to pop and metal. That's why the import of the group's repertoire has been exponentially increased by the things other bands have brought to them: New Order doing "White Light/White Heat"; R.E.M.'s "Pale Blue Eyes" and so on.

In 1970, Reed went solo, and his first few albums, particularly Transformer, Berlin and Rock 'n' Roll Animal, certainly upheld his reputation as a brilliant songwriter and powerful, if quirky, stage presence. And yet, Reed's real strength seems to be as a collaborator. The things he's best known for--that soaring solo by Mick Ronson at the start of "Sweet Jane," for example--are not really his own but things he somehow inspired or enhanced with his ear for melody and sense of the dramatic.

Reed was certainly never the sex-and-drugs-addled homosexual he pretended to be. Prior to the formation of Velvet Underground in 1965, Reed (born Lou Firbank) was a Brill Building-type songwriter, churning out silly love-song hits for the Pickwick stable of writers and bands, including the Primitives and the Jades.

Perhaps this is why when he insists on being a rock star that he fails so signally. Aspects of his early work still cling to him, and these are the aspects that are most appealing in the new album: gentle horn parts and the kind of lazy, Kurt Weillian sentimentality of songs like "New York City Man," "Trade-in" and the title cut. Everywhere else, he seems utterly at odds with the music, desperately trying to be a great poet, a hard rocker and an avant-garde artiste all at once, and failing on every count except that of plain old musician.

Moreover, like so many artists of his age and stage (he is 54 this month), Reed's point of view on life and love is suspiciously played out. Set the Twilight Reeling is supposed to be an album of love songs, presumably inspired by his new relationship with performance artist Laurie Anderson. It begins, however, with a remarkably dumb song called "Egg Cream," which is a reminiscence of a favorite drink from the '50s set in an inappropriate hard-rock context.

"HookyWooky" is a tired old saw in Brooklynese, one of Reed's trademark riff-heavy songs (akin to "I Love You, Suzanne" off New Sensations or "Sally Can't Dance"). Worst of all is "Adventurer," with its clunky lyrics: "You're a queen reborn/worshipped from above afar."

The essential problem with Set the Twilight Reeling is its massive verbosity--the same problem that plagued New Sensations and New York, with its mind-blowingly pompous songs, "The Original Wrapper" and "The Last American Whale."

Reed continually raps off lengthy, unedited and tuneless narratives framed by catchy choruses: "Let go of your emotions" is one of the more effective ones here--but it's all just babble. Like many old men, he loves to hear himself talk uninterruptedly.

This bout of sonic diarrhea reaches its height on the anti-Rush Limbaugh song "Sex With Your Parents," a self-righteously embittered bit of babble ("I was getting so sick of this right-wing Republican shit/these ugly old men scared of young tit and dick") that completely overkills every point it makes.

And what can you do with lyrics like "The way AIDS needs a vaccine/somewhere a vaccine needs AIDS," from "The Proposition" or "I was thinking of Van Gogh's last painting," from "Riptide," other than shudder at their vanity?

Unbeknownst to the general public, there's a little-mentioned cultural law in force in America that states that all rock critics must love the Velvet Underground or lose their credibility.

But truth be told, although Set the Twilight Reeling has the occasional redemptive musical moment or snatch of poetic insight, for the most part, I find Reed's solo persona--gruff voice, snappish tone, extreme self-importance--so repellent that I was forced to listen to his 1979 double LP, Lou Reed Live--Take No Prisoners, to remind myself what was once good about him.

And good he was. From the opening words on "Sweet Jane"--"I'm gonna quote a line from Yeats, he said. 'The best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.' Now you figure out where I am"--to the final notes of "Satellite of Love," he was convincing, absorbing, terrifying and somehow right.

Or so I thought at age 18--back when I did, indeed, take people more at their own valuation. Nowadays, I don't, and I see clearly that Reed is--perhaps was--none of those things. Instead, he is a torpid cross between Henry Rollins and William F. Buckley, self-absorbed, one-dimensional and earnest. What he lacks is humor and humility, without which no artist--no human--can hope to create great art.

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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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