Thursday, July 1, 2010

Lou Reed: Magic and Loss (1992)

(As published in Brian Q. Newcomb's Harvest Rock Syndicate ... )

Lou Reed
Magic and Loss
(Sire/Warner Bros.)

In Magic and Loss as in Songs for 'Drella, his 1990 tribute to the late Andy Warhol, Lou Reed attempts to make public art out of private grief. His strength lies in his ability to maintain the verbal and musical elements of his eulogy for fifty-eight minutes, his weakness in his inability to connect the details of his friends' deaths to the universal themes that, for him, those themes conjure up.

A similar problem dogged him on 1989's New York, an album of what he called "rock-and-roll for adults" and the one that restored him to critical adulation as surely as it signaled the exit of his sense of humor. In it he passed off details as insight and political correctness as compassion, and in the end it all rang hollow. In Magic and Loss he passes off details as insight and Kubler-Ross's stages of grief as emotion. Wordy above and beyond the call of poetry, he often sounds more fascinated by his mourning than by his ostensible subject: loved ones and cancer.

Ultimately--and somewhat ironically--however, that same wordiness partially saves Magic and Loss from the pretension in which Reed seems intent on drowning it. Listening to him stumble over similes (in "What's Good"), cite mythology ("Sword of Damocles"), and cram too many syllables into the ol' four-four (almost every song), you can't help getting some idea of how deeply the loss of his friends affects him.

But the only truly transcendent song, "Harry's Circumcision," transcends by way of digression. Subtitled "Reverie Gone Astray," it deals with neither magic nor loss but with turning into one's parents, a fate that--unlike slow, painful death--awaits us all. And in the tradition of the Talking Heads' "Seen and Not Seen" and Reed's own "The Gift," its warped humor swallows death whole.

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