FATAL REFRACTION

LOU REED SCARES THE POP OUT OF DEATH

The songs on Magic and Loss, like those on the rest of Reed's Eighties albums, work variations on this technique, testing its limitations. Reed is more aware of the contradictions of trying to spin pop into art than anyone else who has tried it, and so the most successful cuts on Magic and Loss are the most confused. On "Magician," Reed seemingly assumes the persona of one of his dying friends. He folds his vocals into a static, late-night lament built from guitars shifting against a keyboard drone and cloaks the song like a drawn drape. But there's no disguising his own arrogance and aloofness, and Reed doesn't try. "Cremation," centered on the hackneyed image of the coal-black sea waiting for all of us, is rescued by its self-absorption. "The coal-black sea cries out for me, me, me," Reed mutters, producing a real, not-very-likable moment of very human, selfish terror out of what should have been empty pseudoexistentialism. Only a handful of songs--the least successful ones--deal overtly with the pain the two people who died must have suffered. It is the essence of Reed's career that he makes his most universal art when he's most thoroughly self-absorbed. Like The Blue Mask, Magic and Loss succeeds because Reed spends so much of it trumpeting his own survival, with all presumptions and contradictions intact. And those contradictions abound. An avowed rebel, Reed can't resist mentioning his friend's appearance in the New York Times obituaries and the famous people at the funeral. It's a similar impulse to the one that propelled him to do an American Express commercial a few years back. Or make the 1975 album Metal Machine Music--64 minutes of formless, screeching feedback that was his response to his mid-Seventies popularity and his soured relationship with RCA (a mercifully short excerpt of Metal Machine is included on Between Thought and Expression). As Reed understands so well, being an outsider can get you in. All his self-aggrandizement appears in Magic and Loss's final track, side by side with Reed's penchant for self-deprecation. His compassion reveals itself, as does his iciness. The final lyric, about how "There's a bit of magic in everything/And then some loss to even things out," is pretty lame as a summation and a hook, but as the conclusion of a poetic pop album it strikes the necessary chord.

As on his underrated Andy Warhol tribute, Songs for 'Drella, Lou Reed never lets the new songs on Magic and Loss dissolve into mere mood, or reverie, or even art. He keeps the grooves rolling, his delivery dry. Now that he's finally found a way to lay philosophical exploration into a pop melody and have it float, he's more willing to admit to being a rock singer, a buyer and seller of immediate pleasures. Between Thought and Expression charts, in a curious way, the devolution (not decline) of Reed's songwriting skills. And Magic and Loss, messy and inconsistent as it is, may be the culmination of the most productive period in this aggravating, smug, intensely rewarding singer's solo career. Reed's music isn't pure pop anymore, but it still rocks. The infantile rhymes and dry sarcasm which once undermined the lyrics now intensify them. Oh, hell. Maybe it's poetry after all.

NOT EXACTLY EASY LISTENING METALLICA IS ... v6-03-92

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