“The angels haggard and wan
Unveiling and uprising affirm
That the play is the tragedy ‘Man’
And its hero the Conqueror Worm.”
As I write this review, it has now been three weeks since Lou Reed’s epic ode to Edgar Allan Poe The Raven has been available in stores. Critics, both in print and on the web, have been ravenous (‘scuse the pun), tearing apart Reed’s psychotic, schizophrenic record with all the subtlety of a pack of hyenas. Words such as, “embarrassing”, “pretentious”, “awful”, “nadir”, “unsatisfying”, and “laughable” keep popping up, as cynical scribes do their worst, some out of blind rage, some perhaps blasting a Boomer artist in order to maintain a certain level of Indie Cred, or maybe even vainly penning their own personal versions of the legendary negative solo Reed reviews Lester Bangs wrote in the mid-1970s. For weeks, dear reader, I’ve been curious as to what my stance on this most baffling album would be, and now, after many repeated listenings, I’m exhausted, emotionally drained; yet despite the mental fog in my head, there’s one plain thought that burns brightly, with a clarity that belies my fatigue: I really like this album.
Before I go on, please note that this review of The Raven is for the double CD version. Forget the single CD, 21-track version of this album; it’s useless, it’s garbage, it goes against everything Reed intended to create with this project; it’s the record company’s idea, thinking the buying public won’t dig a two-hour, 46-track double album. Well, they’re partially correct. A lot of people will not like this album: it’s arrogant, unflinching, and dares to take chances. “[The Raven’s] my fastball,” Reed described recently, “It’s my 95 mile an hour pitch.” And it’s aimed straight at your chin. You can choose to bail, and hit the deck. Or, you can dig in, and deal with it.
Going back to his days as the chief creative force behind The Velvet Underground, Reed has always dabbled in the world of literature. He studied with poet Delmore Schwartz, and he idolized counterculture writers such as Hubert Selby, Jr. and William S. Burroughs. Songs such as the darkly comic “The Gift”, the Burroughsian cut-up experiment “The Murder Mystery”, the macabre art rock-meets-radio play “Lady Godiva’s Operation”, and “Venus in Furs” (adapted from the cult novel) all showed Reed was more than just a mere rock ‘n’ roller. These days, Reed has completed the jump to the printed word, publishing his lyrics in a book, and even recently promoting this album in bookstores. So it hardly comes as a surprise that he’s decided to tackle the true American originator of all literature dark and creepy, Edgar Allan Poe. Originally a stage play created in collaboration with noted theater innovator Robert Wilson (who earlier worked with Tom Waits on a project which yielded The Black Rider play and album), Reed has taken the premise even further on record; so far, in fact, that the end result is an album that’s a mess, an ungodly mess, one that makes you wonder if Reed was helping himself to some of that opium that Poe so often wrote about. But still, like an aural version of a Wallace Berman collage, it may seem to resemble a big pile of trash on the surface, although when given some time, it is anything but.
The Raven, as it turns out, is more spoken word than rock ‘n’ roll, and longtime Reed fans may be a bit disappointed to learn that Lou sings on only 13 of the album’s 46 tracks. As various actors read interpretations of Poe’s poetry (more on that shortly) and act out his stories, Reed and his ace backing band (comprised of guitarist Mike Rathke, bassist Fernando Saunders, and drummer Tony Smith) sit in, acting as the house band from Hell, popping in from time to time to fill us in between scenes. The 60-year-old Reed manages to rock out like few musicians his age have done before, with a ferocity that refuses to let up. Still, the results are a bit dicey, beginning with the song “Edgar Allan Poe”, which, despite a searing performance by Reed and his band, reads like one of those written-in-five-minutes, cringe-inducing songs that Paul McCartney specializes in: “He’ll tell you tales of horror/Then he’ll play with your mind/If you haven’t heard of him/You must be deaf or blind.” “Guilty – song” is a cool jam, with the great Ornette Coleman on alto sax, while the instrumental “A Thousand Departed Friends” boasts a menacing riff. “Call on Me”, a duet with Laurie Anderson, is a good, heartfelt ballad, with Reed’s aging voice quivering with emotion, while the energetic “Change” is more philosophical in tone (“The only thing constantly changing is change/And change is always for the worse/The worm on the hook always eaten by a fish/The fish by bird man or worse”).
Reed’s voice takes on a cracked, Dylanesque croak on two songs inspired by Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart”: the loud, paranoiac “Blind Rage”, as well as on the brooding “Burning Embers”. On the other hand, on “I Wanna Know (The Pit and the Pendulum)”, Reed’s guttural moan, when accompanied by the soulful vocal strains of The Blind Boys of Alabama, he’s completely outmatched, and “Hop Frog”, with guest vocalist David Bowie (yes, the first Reed-Bowie collaboration in 30 years), doesn’t really say much, growing tiresome very quickly. Reed’s best songs appear late in the album: the ethereally beautiful “Vanishing Act” has Reed singing starkly, in that famously limited range of his, over an equally sparse piano accompaniment (“How nice it is to disappear/Float into a mist/With a young lady on your arm/Looking for a kiss”), before climaxing with a coda featuring gorgeous swells of strings. “Who Am I” (Tripitena’s Song)”, based on a character from the story “Hop Frog Or the Chained Ourang-Outans”, is Reed at his most heartfelt, his lyrics hinting at a more personal depth than merely being the voice of a character: “Sometimes I wonder who am I/The world seeming to pass me by/A younger man now getting old/I have to wonder what the rest of life will hold.”
However, although this is Lou Reed’s album, the real star of The Raven is producer Hal Willner. Arguably the best spoken-word producer working today, Willner has been at the helm of some of the most notable releases in the genre; most famously, his collaborations with three of the key avatars of the Beat Generation: Allen Ginsberg (the stupendous Holy Soul Jelly Roll), Burroughs (Dead City Radio), and Gregory Corso (Die On Me). In fact, The Raven isn’t Willner’s first Poe-related project, as he also produced Closed on Account of Rabies, an album of Poe readings. What Willner does on this album is create a truly unsettling, sometimes scary experience for the listener, underscoring readings with minimal music and startling sound effects, all the while treating the listener to an old-fashioned radio drama experience. He knows better than anyone else how to pull the listener in with literature, making it a more visceral experience than a mere book on tape.
The readings themselves are sensational, led by actors Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Fisher Stevens, Amanda Plummer, and Elizabeth Ashley. None of the actors play specific roles on the album, often alternating playing the narrators in each reading, and sometimes even sharing lines written for the same character (“The City in the Sea/The Shadow”). Highlights of these pieces include “The Fall of the House of Usher” (with Stevens and Dafoe), the intensely terrifying “The Tell-Tale Heart” (with Buscemi and Dafoe), Plummer’s chilling reading of “Annabel Lee/The Bells”, and of course, Dafoe’s impassioned reading of “The Raven”, the album’s centerpiece.
Which, inevitably, leads me to Reed’s adaptation of Poe’s writing. While creative license is easy to allow with regards to the dramatic adaptations of the short stories, the same can’t be said for Reed’s unabashed butchering of Poe’s poetry. In a display of artistic effrontery, the likes of which we haven’t seen in years, Reed throws his own “improvements” into the mix, making the lines sound more contemporary, and the results are often glaringly obvious, nowhere more so than in “The Raven”, where Reed slices and dices the original, peppering it with lines like, “Muttering I got up weakly/Always had trouble sleeping,” “Respite through the haze of cocaine’s glory,” and “Sweaty, arrogant, dickless liar.” It’s befuddling how an artist like Reed can pay tribute to a great writer out of love for his work, yet at the same time, display little respect for the work itself. Still, I’ve got to say, it doesn’t get in the way too much, and makes for a leaner album. But I’m sure old Edgar wouldn’t have felt the need to write a line like “I’ll fuck him up the ass and piss in his face.”
The Raven reaches a spectacular climax on the last seven tracks, which are centered around the story “Hop Frog Or the Chained Ourang-Outans”, as Stevens, Plummer, and Dafoe bring to life the story of a put-upon court jester and his lover who exact revenge on a loathsome king and his ministers. Reed adds some more lines of his own to the story on “Tripitena’s Speech”, but this time it works perfectly, as Plummer’s Tripitena (changed from “Trippetta” in the original story) eerily whispers lines that can easily be applied to the present day: “He who underestimates in time is bound to find the truth sublime/And hollow lie upon the grates of systematic disorder/Businessmen/You’re not worth shitting on.” After the wonderful “Who Am I?”, we’re taken back to the story, and as the king and his minions are burned alive, Plummer snarls, “Burn, monkeys, burn!” Right then, it segues into “Fire Music”, the albums finest moment, where Reed recreates the chaotic strains of his infamous Metal Machine Music album. However, this time around, all the noise is concentrated into two and a half minutes of sonic ferocity (fueled by the fact that it was recorded in Reed’s studio three days after the 9/11 tragedy, mere blocks from Ground Zero), and unlike Metal Machine Music, it works.
But of course, with this album, you’ve got to take the good with the bad, which includes “Broadway Song”, a completely useless song that features Buscemi pretending to be a lounge lizard, and “Balloon”, sung by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, which sounds just as out of place. Most perplexing are the remakes of two of Reed’s earlier solo songs: his re-reading of “The Bed”, from his Berlin album works well enough, but the version of Transformer‘s “perfect Day”, with an unknown singer named Antony warbling along like a bad Tiny Tim impersonator, is utterly horrific, but its disturbing quality somehow makes it fit on this album.
In the end, what makes this fabulous disaster of an album work is the passion of Reed’s performance. Few artists his age are daring to try something bold and different, and like Dylan, he’s not through searching for inspiration. “Who am I?” Reed writes in the liner notes, “Why am I drawn to do what I should not . . . the impulse of destructive desire-the desire for self-mortification.” That feeling, that question of what is right and wrong, lies in all of us, and is the central theme of The Raven. Ornery critics might point out that Reed obviously did not know the difference between right and wrong when he made this album, but just between you and me, dear reader, although it’s not exactly for everybody, in my humble opinion, it’s a success. A flawed, audacious, puzzling, maddening success. Anyone who loves daring, passionate music should seek this one out. As for yours truly, I’m off to sleep. With the light on.