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The concept of a series of pop songs concerning the cancer deaths of two friends is dubious at best--likely to succeed neither as philosophical exploration nor as enduring pop. On his new album, Magic and Loss, however, Lou Reed, still one of rock's most contradictory figures, comes impressively close to pulling it off.

But then, Lou Reed cheats. Always has.
Truth is, Reed hasn't written a real pop song in almost a decade. The last was "I Love You, Suzanne," a giddily pointless 1984 hit single, which isn't even included on RCA's new three-CD Reed boxed set, Between Thought and Expression. Since 1981 Reed has been writing grooves: muscular, sexy things that move like pop songs, sound like pop songs, but don't arc like pop songs. They don't start or end. They just swoop down like stunt planes and catch you up. Then, when you're good and exhilarated, Captain Lou comes on over the intercom, lecturing in the arrogant, deadpan drawl that has been his trademark since he first thumbed his nose at--and opened his arms to--pop music with the Velvet Underground.

Reed's last album, New York, strove for a gritty street feel. The punchy guitars thumped out simple two- and three-chord hook lines. The lyrics avoided the arty ambiguity of Velvet Underground classics like "Heroin," but painted a predictably grim picture of New York street life--from a distance. Attempting to eliminate himself from the songs and become, for the first time in his life, a mere observer, Reed wound up deflating not only his own persona but the power of the music.

Both Between Thought and Expression and Magic and Loss, on the other hand, are bloated before they start. The booklet inside the boxed set begins with a quote from noted literary critic--er, heavy metal rock producer--Bob Ezrin, proclaiming Reed "the most underrated contemporary poet in America." Song titles on Magic and Loss, meanwhile, include "Power and Glory," "Sword of Damocles," "Cremation" and, of course, the title track. The album also comes with its own thematic outline. Thus, "What's Good" is subtitled "The Thesis," and "Magic and Loss" is "The Summation." The anthemic, mock-metal guitar wails that open the disc certainly sound consistent with the overblown language.

But out of all this superinflated chaos lopes a patented Lou Reed groove. In "What's Good," the lead song on Magic and Loss, the guitar lays down a smooth, seductive lead figure. The drums and bass swing into line behind it, and suddenly, Magic and Loss sounds like a pop album.

Most of the lyrics to "What's Good" seem coy at first, overclever and underrelevant: "Life's like Sanskrit read to a pony." But Reed's smug, so-dry delivery, back in full force now after its New York hiatus, allows him to dive deeper than more overtly emotive singers would dare to, without drowning in sentimentality. And at the end of "What's Good," he pulls out one of those blossoming pop moments. His words, out of synch for most of the cut, succumb to the rhythm. "What's good--life's good," go the lyrics, while the beat bops, and then staggers to a stop as Lou chants, just once, "Life's good. But not fair at all."

It's a subtle trick. By spending most of the song batting us out of that welcoming rhythm, Reed intensifies the pleasures of finally submerging in it. And by saving his most critical observation for the moment of submersion, he transforms what should have been clichd art and bland pop into potent art.

As Between Thought and Expression reveals, Reed has been honing this technique for more than a decade now. To its credit, the boxed set traces this evolution by including material from both his RCA and Arista albums. Back in the early Seventies, fresh from four astonishing albums with the Velvet Underground, Reed got tangled up in an ongoing love-hate relationship with his chosen medium. Songs like his 1972 hit single "Walk on the Wild Side," or the 1974 live mauling of his Velvet Underground classic "Sweet Jane," display Reed's underestimated skill with crafting pop hooks. But too often, the vicious sarcasm in his vocals undermines those hooks, and grinds the music into tedium. Finally, by 1976's Rock and Roll Heart, Reed's contempt for pop overwhelmed even his obsession with making enduring art, reducing his music and lyrics to savage self-parody (see the catchy but lamebrained chorus to the title track: "I guess that I'm dumb 'cause I know I'm not smart/But deep down inside I got a rock and roll heart").

But after another five years of fumbling around, discarding styles like used syringes, Reed at last found a format that suited him. In 1981, after the death of his teacher and mentor, poet Delmore Schwartz, Reed pared down his sound. He ditched the catchy choruses but not the innate pop sense, drained the sarcasm (but not the arrogance) out of his vocals, and tossed off the best solo album of his career to that point, The Blue Mask.

"My House," one of four tracks from that record that ended up on the new boxed set, twines its guitars and bass and drums into a minimal but memorable rhythm. Instead of cramming his highbrow lyrics into ill-fitting half-phrases, Reed lets them roll out over the top of that rhythm in a half-sung, half-spoken, deeply personal murmur that carries all the emotion, and most of the weight, he'd always struggled so hard for.

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.


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Glen Hirshberg