April 15, 2004

Rules of Verse

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Lou Reed has played many parts over the years, but he’s always been best, and most convincing, playing himself — a teacher and a tease. Animal Serenade, his latest live album, opens with the most welcome sound in rock: the first chords of “Sweet Jane.” The crowd is cheering, and you’re sitting at home with that stupid grin the song always gives you plastered across your face, and just when you’ve started to murmur “standing on the corner” … he stops playing. That bastard. Then he says: “this is for anyone who’s ever wondered how you could make a career out of three chords.” And demonstrates the ultra-secret fourth chord. Just like that, everyone knows this is going to be good.

The secret of Animal’s success — and Lou’s — is that, after all these years, he plays like he just wrote the notes, treats the audience like some guys he met in a bar, and sings like he means every word. There’s still all that brilliant sarcasm and too-cool-for-school delivery, but there’s no distance and no ironic posturing. This is no Vegas Elvis schlock; this is a real concert, which means there’s still risk.

“Smalltown,” with lyrics that are only funny because Lou’s survived to write them, provides a strong opener complete with some spoken observations about L.A. and New York that Woody Allen would be proud to have written. “Men of Good Fortune” remains a great philosophy of history wrapped in sneeringly sincere vocals. On disc one the newer songs gain new life from the band’s commitment. Surprisingly, the one real disappointment is a bloated, 10- minute “Venus In Furs” which starts off sexy, exhausted, and predatory as ever and ends up as dull monotonous kink.

Fortunately the second disc recovers with a wonderfully messy “Dirt Blvd.” which somehow manages to combine perfectly phrased lyrics with a tangled, sloppy guitar-led full band attack. The double gift of “Sunday Morning” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is seriously weakened by the instrumentation of the former, which can only be described as twee. The band is verging on Lite-FM here, and this awful mistake is only thrown into harsher relief by the ravage of Reed’s voice, which almost approaches Nico-like proportions. The decision to deconstruct “Parties” works a lot better, with Lou’s delivery free and soulful.

Lou’s disarming, self-deprecating introduction of his reworking of Poe (“The Raven”) is so charming that you actually give the song a chance, and the minimal strings reveal a good song hidden behind the studied lack of pretension.

But Lou’s still at his best with his first great song. This version of “Heroin” perfectly captures the song’s frenzied, despairing paralysis. The quick insert of “I’ll be your mirror” expresses the void of loneliness gaping under the acoustic guitars. By the end, Lou’s gasping out “I guess I just don’t know” like it’s an awesome effort just to speak, and we understand the exact attraction of putting a spike right in a vein. The album ends with the swirl of strings wrapping the audience in a junkie lullaby at least as comforting as it is terrifying.

Archived article by Erica Stein
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer