Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Lou Reed Berlin (1973)

BerlinFrom starling.rinet.ru

An overall rating of 10, I feel, is not going to satisfy anybody – there is really no middle ground. You will either deify this record, calling it one of the richest and most wonderful chef-d’ouevres that modern music has managed to produced, or trample it under your feet all the while spitting out curses and lamenting over the fact how you’d like to punch the fat ass of the guy who told you Lou Reed was the archetypical proto-punk.

One thing’s for certain, though – Berlin ain’t for everybody. It’s also quite unlike anything Lou Reed had ever done before or since, and I’d even go as far as to state with all certainty that the album has no analogs in rock music at all. On a basic level, this is a ‘rock opera’ about a romance between an American dealer and a German drugged-out courtisan – they meet, they fall in love, they marry, they make children, they quarrel, they part their ways, they leave the kids with the father, they rave nostalgic, and then the story ends – what a great subject for a neo-realistic film. Or, wait, didn’t we see the first part of this story in Cabaret? Why, as a matter of fact, we did – life goes on and on, you see!

What makes the album so special isn’t the storyline, of course, but the atmosphere of the album. Even though it is recorded with a cast of thousands (Jack Bruce of Cream and Tony Levin of the future King Crimson on bass, B. J. Wilson of Procol Harum on drums, Steve Winwood on organ, etc., etc.), the arrangements are again mostly stripped down, but this time it is not the stripped-down-ness of a New York S&M club or a ghetto bordello, as in Transformer; it is the stripped-down-ness of a psychological record, brimming with emotions, both sincere and fake, with a strong German flavour.

Sometimes it’s just Lou sitting all alone with his guitar (‘Oh Jim’) or piano (title track), but more often the atmosphere is created with eerie effects – a gloomy church organ in the background, a barrage of heavy, bass-emphasized piano chords, some echoey, leaden vocals, a distorted block chord now and then, you know, that kind of stuff. It all combines to make a record so depressed and tragic, so utterly pessimistic, almost apocalyptic, that even Quadrophenia sounds like ‘Ode To Joy’ in comparison. If you can’t stand slow, lethargic, gloomy records, don’t even think about buying this, no matter how much your friends praise it.

The big problem is that the actual songs seem to be a little neglected in favour of the mood and the lyrics – although, to be honest, the record does contain some of Lou’s most hard-hitting lyrics ever (‘Men Of Good Fortune’, ‘The Kids’). The tunes are very rarely memorable, their structures transparent and feeble, and the melodies often diluted in a sea of noises or disorganised piano chords. The title track, recycled from Lou Reed, is a perfect example: the formerly magnificent nostalgic ballad with a heart-breaking chorus is given a piano-only arrangement and a careless, almost off-key vocal treatment (not to mention that only a short snippet of the original actually made it to the re-recording). Same goes for such songs as ‘Lady Day’, the story of the protagonists’ meeting, that picks a little steam only during the choruses. If you’re looking for rockers, look elsewhere: ‘How Do You Think It Feels’, with its aggressive guitar part, is probably the closest to a rocker on here, but it’s also the song that fits in with the mood least of all.

So my best advice is to accept the album as it is – relax and try to give yourself in to the enchantment that Reed clumsily casts upon you. If you succeed, you’ll find quite a lot of pleasure and sometimes even catharsis in these songs. ‘Men Of Good Fortune’, for instance, evolves from a slow, typically Lou Reed-style humming into a raising scream of protest; ‘Caroline Says’ is tender, sad, and moving, with its lyrics about the breaking of relationship between the lovers; and the centerpiece of the whole ‘opera’ seems to be ‘The Kids’, a fascinating tale of the mother’s separation from her children complete with real kids weeping and crying ‘Mummy!’ – a tale that, when delivered in Lou Reed’s casual, but here very Bob Dylan-ish wheezing tone, assumes an almost universal meaning – classic!

Yeah, kids, this ain’t rock’n’roll in the faintest degree – slow song after slow song after lethargic song after hypnotic song, and not a real rock riff in sight. And I admit it’s hard, what the hell, at first listen it must be pure torture to sit through the melancholic ‘Caroline Says (part 2)’, then endure the pessimistic ‘Kids’, before being submitted to the nostalgic ‘The Bed’ (with an unbearable, angel-voiced coda that reminds me of the ‘Crucifixion’ scene in Jesus Christ Superstar) and the romantic, universalist ‘Sad Song’, all of which go off at the same tempo (super-slow) and apparently feature only rudiments of melody, all of them based either on a sloppy acoustic rhythm track or a falling apart set of piano chords. But real art isn’t always easy to endure, friends – and this is real art, no doubt about that. The question is whether the game’s worth it – will you be morally rewarded for trying to endure this?

Well, I still am not: I can’t really get used to the atmosphere and the lack of melodies, and I guess I will never be, unless I find something in my life so that I could identify myself with one of the heroes (hope I won’t). But the album is still very good – those who are able to fit in the groove will never want to part with it. The lyrics are clever, the arrangements are perfectly suited for them, and the production is just what is needed for this kind of conception. Now… LET ME GO TO SLEEP before I write another idiotic word-combination!

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January 4, 2014 - Posted by | Lou Reed Berlin |

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