To Bring You My Love

to_bring_you_my_love

Album: To Bring You My Love

Artist: PJ Harvey

Released: February 25th, 1995

Highlights: To Bring You My Love, Meet Ze Monsta, Send His Love to Me, The Dancer

“To Bring You My Love” presents a combination of qualities that is, to say the least, very unlikely. On one hand, it is a record of intimacy, featuring a collection of songs that (with the exception of the ruthless banging of “Meet Ze Monsta” and “Long Snake Moan”) are quiet and subdued; as such, it is an album that forces listeners to lean in so they can enter its universe appropriately and grasp everything PJ Harvey is trying to say. At the same time, though, her third work is also positively fierce, and while it deals with feelings that usually indicate a sullen atmosphere, such as maddening love and death, the album turns the table on these topics; rather than being sucked down into defeat by them, it opts to stand tall in the midst of the misery, expose its suffering soul for the world to see, and bask in the courageous glory of the act. “To Bring You My Love” is, therefore, a triumph of displaying relentless passion in a restrained manner.

The keywords for that achievement are heart and performance. In her two previous albums, “Dry” and “Rid of Me”, PJ Harvey had already shown she had plenty of those. Her lyrics, entwined with blatantly stated emotions so powerful they sometimes spilled into threats or violence, had turned the indie rocker coming from the English countryside into a somewhat dark menacing figure in the minds of her audience. To further enhance and validate that impression, she and her band executed these tunes ferociously: the sound was raw, as if performed from within a dirty garage; the playing was loud as well as rough, concocting a peculiar mixture of blues with punk; and PJ Harvey interpreted her lyrics with the authenticity of someone who had lived through them, screaming in pain, shouting in anger, singing in defiance, or staring her target down in hatred when necessary.

It is not a surprise, then, that “To Bring You My Love” is a masterclass of performance. Considering the wild nature of its predecessors, however, the true shock here comes from how PJ Harvey has almost completely shifted gears when it comes to expressing herself. Instead of breaking into her lover’s house and screaming on his face while building a fabulous racket with her guitar, in “To Bring You My Love” she is taking a sneakier approach, luring listeners into the inner workings of her psyche and exposing – in a much calmer and sinister manner – what goes through the veins of her body. It is, essentially, the distinction between performing a revealing emotional monologue on a stage and whispering those same truths to a an individual that is inside her home.

With a lot of room for emotion and little space for either instrumental flourishes or ornamental touches, “Dry” and “Rid of Me” were basic, minimalistic, and raw. In another glorious turn of incongruence, given how different it is from those records, those characteristics are also valid for “To Bring You My Love”. However, needless to say, once again the record gets to them in a very distinctive way. As PJ Harvey’s break into the mainstream, the album’s production is much more full-fledged: the sound is clean, stripping nearly all punk and garage ethos from the music; the instrumentation is varied, as pianos, keyboards, strings, and light electronic treatments come into play; and all of these are combined to give the work a sleek luster and some carefully engineered atmospheres. Yet, even if for the first time accompanied by so much decoration, PJ Harvey’s inherent rawness is not drowned.

A good portion of that victory stems from the fact that, quite boldly and despite the extra treatment, many of the tunes are left in a very bare-bones instrumental state. The title track, in fact, may be the finest example of that approach, because even though an additional louder guitar punctually emerges and a few haunting keyboard lines are occasionally played, the song – which goes over the five-minute mark – is mostly carried by PJ Harvey’s voice and her electric guitar, as she delicately picks a quiet (yet mighty and threatening) blues-inspired riff. Those who have listened to “Dry” and “Rid of Me” may expect, like in many instances from those albums, the tune to explode into a furious thunderstorm at any moment as tension slowly builds when the other two instruments come and go as well as when the singer puts an extra force behind her hypnotizing words, but PJ Harvey never attacks, intimately declaring – instead – the insane sinful lengths through which she would go to be with her lover, and leaving the dark clouds to just loom in the distance ominously.

Various other tunes follow suit. “Working for the Man” is even more naked, as despite the nigh constant presence of a very light jangly guitar, its leading instruments are the steady drums, the simple but catchy bass line, and PJ Harvey’s whispers about picking up a whole lot of lovers while driving around. “C’mon Billy” is essentially made up of an acoustic guitar and voice, and as she sings from the point of view of a woman who tries to convince the father of her child to meet their kid with the intent of seeing the man again, she does so with the intensity of someone who is playing a vicious rock song. “Send His Love To Me” is another acoustic track, but one that has some percussion and a spectacular combination of strings with an organ. “Teclo” features nothing but a voice and electric guitar duo that slowly builds up emotion as PJ Harvey states the death of her lover will also be her end. “Down By The Water”, in which a woman drowns her infant daughter, has tasteful and eventual orchestral touches, but is guided by a nasty noisy organ, bass, and drums. “I Think I’m a Mother” is a stripped-down blues number drenched in effects. And “The Dancer” builds an epic ballad with an organ and watery guitars.

From a cynical perspective, these are tunes that should not click. They are mostly long; they are not very dynamic; most of them have no pronounced choruses; and their structures are not very well-defined. However, not only do they work, but they are utterly gripping. PJ Harvey, drinking from the bluesmen of old, throws a load of religious references into her songs, as if only supernatural forces – be those of God, Jesus, or Satan – could understand her woes or help her get rid of them. Meanwhile, channeling one of her idols, Howlin’ Wolf, she pours herself into these tracks madly, whether it is to shape dark atmospheres (“I Think I’m a Mother”), emerge like a threatening giant of immeasurable force (“To Bring You My Love”), or throw herself down in utter despair in search of a higher power that can save her (“Send His Love to Me”). In that context, the basic but impossibly catchy instrumentals are accompanying music for her performance, and her feelings are delivered via uniformly excellent melodic work that will subtly sneak up on listeners.

“To Bring You My Love” is then an album of clashing values. It is intimate, but ferocious. It is sleek, but raw. It is straightforward in instrumentation, but unbelievably involving. It is basic, but sonically diverse. It is melodically subtle, but inevitably catchy. And, ultimately, it is one of those rare breakthrough albums that package the artist for the mainstream without compromising their essence. Working alongside Flood and John Parish as a producer, PJ Harvey abandons her garage beginnings to find a sound that is bare-bones, unique, and challenging, but also approachable. In its rawness, it stays true to her early music. In its simplicity, it allows her to keep on leading the way with her unfiltered emotions. And as it supports one encounter between inventiveness and spotless songwriting, it produces one of the rock’s masterpieces.

five

154

154

Album: 154

Artist: Wire

Released: September 23rd, 1979

Highlights: I Should Have Known Better, The 15th, On Returning, Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3

Much like The Stooges, the MC5, the Sex Pistols, and the New York Dolls, Wire was a punk rock band that rather than fading away slowly, burned out quickly. In their case, the interval between 1976 and 1979 was all that it took for the quartet to burst into the scene, put out three influential records, and call it a day. Sure, anyone who knows of the group’s history will point out that they would eventually return into the fray nearly one decade later in 1987 and go on to publish more than a dozen new works. However, by the time of their comeback, not only was the whole punk rock explosion a distant sight in the rear-view mirror, but Wire itself was – naturally – quite a different band.

Unlike their short-lived punk rock peers, which used their brief careers in the genre to pound mercilessly at the same style of music, Wire went the other way and took advantage of their concise classic run to cover a lot of ground. Their legendary debut, “Pink Flag”, was not just purely punk to the core; somehow launching into twenty-one tunes in thirty-five minutes, the album was actually defined as the genre’s operatic suite. Released only a few months later, “Chairs Missing” was still quite direct and focused, but it had firmer song structures and – more notably – a heavy dosage of experimentation in dark sparse songs that signaled post-punk was the new tendency in rock.

Coming out one year later and serving as the third piece of that puzzle, “154” – a number that refers to the amount of shows the band had played up to that point – is another type of animal altogether. A quick glance at the duration of the record’s thirteen tracks is enough to reveal that Wire is, here, dabbling into material that is rather different: none of the tunes are shorter than two minutes and more than half of them go over the three-minute mark, which is – for those who had written “Pink Flag” – the equivalent to progressive rock running time. Of course, such lengths could indicate Wire has actually become a standard rock band that writes normal songs, but listening to “154” reveals that is far from the case. This is an album that is more artistically ambitious than all of those that preceded it, digging even deeper in the experimental direction of its predecessors.

“154”, similarly to “Chairs Missing”, can be safely labeled as a post-punk album. There is a deal of irresistible pop catchiness to it, which does the favor of bringing accessible counterpoints to its otherwise mostly confrontational nature, but through most of the way the record checks all of the boxes expected out of the more somber spectrum of the style. “154” is cold, dark, industrial, disturbing, and distant. It does not display these qualities to the extreme of contemporaries like Joy Division or The Cure, because Wire simply does not have the serious and dramatic artistic inspirations of Ian Curtis or Robert Smith. Nevertheless, those defining elements are certainly in the package, albeit in a very distinct format, which ends up doing the album a whole lot of good.

Ultimately, what makes “154” unique is the same set of ingredients that turned “Chairs Missing” into a notable work, with the difference being that they appear more prominently this time around. This is threatening and mechanical post-punk that goes hard on synthesizers, keyboards, and – especially – guitar effects to create a peculiar atmosphere. But instead of going for such oppressive environment via the meticulously constructed path taken by other post-punk bands of the sort, Wire shuns those approaches and bets on a more basic road. What the band is doing here is essentially taking the do-it-yourself punk ethos and applying them to somber post-punk. Although much of the material is daring, nothing is pulled off in a musically ambitious way. “154” is, therefore, as basic, raw, and stripped down as it gets, using that punk spirit not to play fast-paced rock and roll, but to create experimental music.

In general, the best cuts in the album are those that match wild sonic trips with strong melodies, serving as a perfect middle ground between straightforward punk and boundary-pushing music. “I Should Have Known Better” is a cavernous track that anticipates the early releases of Echo & the Bunnymen; with cold narrated verses that reach subdued despair in the hooky chorus, it moves forward at a mechanical pace, with the song’s central beat being mostly provided by the guitars, as the drums focus on adorning the ominous soundscape with clicks. “The 15th” is melodically gorgeous; built on a layer made up of a pair of guitars, one quite clean that plays arpeggios and another drenched in noise that forms the base, the track uses synthesizers to put together what is the closest Wire has ever gotten to a post-punk ballad. With sparse instrumentation, the lengthy “A Touching Display” plods in a threatening way with dissonant guitars and drones that make it a distant offspring of The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs”. “On Returning” follows with a fast-paced progression filled with alien keyboard sounds that frantically build to a culminating emotional release. And similarly drenched in effects, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3” is a lighter poppier tune that flirts with new wave.

On the more purely experimental side, none of the tunes match the greatness of these five songs, but interesting results emerge nonetheless. “Two People In a Room” has a relentless paranoid groove that, in two minutes, features talking, shouting, and an attempt at a more melodic passage. Likewise, “Single K.O.”, which carries an iconic riff as its central hook, shows the members of Wire are still masters at packing unpredictable undefined structures into short running times, given this is a free-flowing composition that keeps attaching itself to different melodies as seconds pass. Finally, “Blessed State”, probably the album’s only relaxing song, has entwining guitars that – in a less technically proficient way – recall Television, since the two play contrasting arpeggio-based lines that clash in beautiful synergy.

As it happened with “Chairs Missing”, however, the downfall of “154” and the factor that keeps it away from being an equal to “Pink Flag” is the fact that Wire’s experimental detours – as commendable and inspiring as they were – fail to be totally productive with a considerable frequency. “The Other Window” and “Indirect Enquiries” are horror movie material of surrealistic musical quality, but are not exactly appealing as songs from a studio record. “Once Is Enough” and “40 Versions” have potential thanks to their interesting guitar lines, the former heavy and the latter nigh electronic, but disintegrate into chaos before they are able to build on their ideas. Lastly, “A Mutual Friend” reaches a satisfying melodic conclusion, but it takes a while wandering through dull experimentation to get there. Because of these weaker moments, “154” is far from being the stone-cold classic it could have been given the stylistic uniqueness of its construction. However, be it due to its influence on future generations or as a consequence of the bridge it builds between punk rock and avant-garde music, listening to it is not just generally enjoyable, but also key in understanding the changes rock went through when the spark of punk started to fade.

three-half

Hey Clockface

hey_clockface

Album: Hey Clockface

Artist: Elvis Costello

Released: October 30th, 2020

Highlights: No Flag, They’re Not Laughing at Me Now, Newspaper Pane, Hetty O’Hara Confidential

Back when he burst into the scene during the tail-end of the 1970s, it was pretty hard to tell Elvis Costello was going to end up being one of rock’s most eclectic songwriters. Looking like a British, punk-rock-influenced reincarnation of Buddy Holly, with glasses and suit naturally included into the package, Costello made a name for himself by fusing literacy, anger, and heartbreak into three-minute catchy wordplay-ridden hand grenades that exploded with the maniacally skillful new wave sound of his legendary backing band, The Attractions. Despite the success of that early package, though, it would not take long for the singer to show there was more to his musical palette than a well-dressed and sleeker take on punk rock, because right on his fourth album, “Get Happy”, he jumped ship to land on a mind-twisting twenty-track exercise of making Blue-Eyed Soul sound as frantic and vicious as possible.

Many years and a lengthy career have unfolded since that day, and Costello took good advantage of that time to explore the full extent of his eclecticism, not only by penning tunes with multiple stylistic leanings, but – perhaps more significantly – collaborating extensively with an astoundingly large group of musicians that includes Paul McCartney, the London Symphony Orchestra, Aimee Mann, Allen Toussaint, The Roots, Burt Bacharach, The Brodsky Quartet, Nick Lowe, T-Bone Burnett, Anne Sofie von Otter, and others. It is a list that displays Costello’s initially geeky appearance was not just superficial, as the man’s desire to work together with various different names reveals the heart of a music nerd has always lied within him.

When talking about his 2020 release, “Hey Clockface”, such consideration is important because, through more than thirty records and countless flirts with distinct genres, Costello had – until this point – never produced a work with so much self-contained eclecticism. Sure, he had plenty of stylistically colorful albums before “Hey Clockface”, such as his divisive 1989 work, “Spike”, and his widely beloved “Imperial Bedroom”, from 1982. But listening to “Hey Clockface” is likely to give his longtime fans a feeling that a life’s worth of musical exploitation has led to the stunningly varied moment at hand.

It is not that “Hey Clockface” comes off as a lazy recapitulation of what has happened so far; Elvis Costello is too much of a restless mind for such dull sameness, but there is indeed some blatant retreading. A trio of piano-and-voice tunes (“The Whirlwind”, “The Last Confession of Vivian Whip”, and “Byline”) recalls, for instance, “North”, the album of love-related ballads he put out in 2003. The vaudevillian title track as well as “I Can’t Say Her Name” nod to detours in the genre that the singer has made in the past, with the former being more energetic and the latter carrying a quiet defeated tone. “I Do (Zula’s Song)” channels his soundtrack work: with words that speak of love but instrumentation that hints at something darker, the song could be one of the pieces of a noir musical. And the theater stage would also be a very fitting place for the presentation of a track like “What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?”, an acoustic lament with the occasional appearance of jazzy brass.

Contrarily to that more traditional set, the album – be in its overall production or in writing – gives plenty of signs that it is still pushing ahead. In the case of those more refreshing tunes, an interesting pattern emerges. As it happens pretty much everywhere in “Hey Clockface”, these are cuts that can be safely traced back to a specific point in the singer’s career. However, their arrangements – which join old-school sounds, contemporary grooves and beats, as well as the signature Elvis Costello layer of boldly placed noises – do one good job at arguing this group of songs as a whole happens to be quite different from everything he has done.

It may seem like a complicated configuration, but take the example of “No Flag”. Here is a track that would fit right at home – both in spirit and quality – in the three fantastic albums that constitute his post-punk phase. It is vitriolic; it has Costello part shouting and part singing; it is guided by a guitar riff that alternates sheer grinding force with poppy hooks; and it has a chorus whose unexpected greatness is reserved to masterful songwriters. Yet, dressing the song up is a cleverly lo-fi treatment, one that could have come out of Tom Waits’ “Real Gone”: rather than drums, the song’s percussion is a pulsating beat and some scatting; Costello’s voice is distorted; and the tune has a brief psychedelic bridge when a mass of quirky sounds joins the central beat.

Other examples like that are plentiful in “Hey Clockface”. “Hetty O’Hara Confidential” feels like a reread of “Hurry Down Doomsday”, from 1991’s “Mighty Like a Rose”, since it has Costello sort of rapping and sort of ranting over a beat made up of more elements than one could count. “Newspaper Pane” starts by threatening to be post-punk, but slowly cooks into another monster: a stream-of-consciousness jam that has keyboards and brass combining into one great groove. “We Are All Cowards Now” is made of darker material lyrically, as its words read like a very accurate description of our contemporary social environment, but is supported by an equally creative backing of effects, pianos, and guitars. Finally, “They’re Not Laughing at Me Now” is yet another song that could be the theme of a character in a musical (in this case, someone that waits hopeful for the day it will all turn around), but its cacophonic drums and its thin keyboard hook (worthy of The Attractions) give it a more outside-the-box presentation.

It is undeniable that “Hey Clockface” suffers a bit from its eclecticism: the mixture of quiet piano tracks, vaudeville-inspired theatrical moments, and tunes holding a more contemporary and forward-looking perspective makes it feel like three unfinished albums glued together under the same package. Its greatest flaw, though, is that it has Costello’s pen alternating heavily between brilliancy and dullness. Out of its more traditional tunes, only “Hey Clockface” and the closer piano ballad “Byline” are noteworthy, with the others not just getting lost in the midst of dull melodies and basic arrangements, but also being painfully concentrated on the second half of the record. Joined by two forgettable spoken-word pieces, the lackluster tracks amount to half of the package. The remaining songs, each with its own intensity, lean towards the positive side of the quality spectrum, but are not shiny enough to make “Hey Clockface” better than decent. The fact that most of them are cut from the same cloth, however, indicates that perhaps the album would have benefited from a more prolonged gestation period; one that would allow it to overall sound more like “No Flag” and less like “The Whirlwind”, and for its eclecticism to be trimmed down to a more focused and refreshing release.

three

Frances The Mute

frances_the_mute

Album: Frances the Mute

Artist: The Mars Volta

Released: March 1st, 2005

Highlights: Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus, The Widow, Cassandra Gemini

The nature of “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, the debut album by The Mars Volta, comes as a rather nice surprise when the context that surrounded rock music at the turn of the century is taken into account. While the bands that were supposedly revitalizing the genre and presenting it to a new audience sourced much of their inspiration from a back-to-basics approach, like The Strokes and The White Stripes, to name a few, the 2003 record constructed by the Texan sextet was anything but simple. Its long multi-phased tunes, conceptual grandeur, and jazz looseness – in fact – made the work land on one of the rhythm’s most inherently complex variations: progressive rock. And true to the style’s forward-looking name and boundary-pushing heart, the band repackaged it originally with a layer of Latin influences that were true to their heritage as well as a shell of volume, speed, and modern sound manipulation techniques that were extracted from various musical movements that unfolded after the genre’s peak in the 1970s.

In spite of its idiosyncrasies, and perhaps partially due to them, “De-Loused in the Comatorium” was a commercial and critical hit. And so, for its sequel, “Frances the Mute”, the band opted to keep the course to see what else they could pull off within the same scope. Consequently, much like the debut, “Frances the Mute” gravitates around a concept; one that, once again, revolves around the group’s deceased sound technician, Jeremy Ward. While carrying out repossession orders, he allegedly found, in the backseat of a car, a diary containing the memories of an adopted man’s search for his real parents. Noticing he had a lot in common with the guy, Jeremy kept the diary, and the material in it would eventually inspire his bandmates’ development of the thematic chain that keeps the tracks of “Frances the Mute” together.

People mentioned in the book had their names used for the characters that appear in the plot as well as for the songs’ titles themselves. And as the album rolls on, the protagonist – Vismund – gets ever closer to the truth, with each person that shows up revealing extra bits of information. Cohesiveness aside, it is worthy to point out that “Frances the Mute” suffers from the same problem that held back “De-Loused in the Comatorium”; that is, its lyrics are so cryptic that it is unlikely listeners would figure out what the record is talking about if its creators had not revealed it. Truth be told, this sophomore effort is, to a degree, clearer than the prior release, as one can pin down references to a disturbing tale that involves Vismund’s mother, a rape, one or more priests, a murder, a child deformed whether as a result of the violence of its birth or as an outcome of the natural biological roulette, and an attempt by the woman’s sister and mother to speak out against the crime.

The stream of dumbfounding verses is not as extreme as the one seen in “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, which housed linguistic oddities such as “Transient jet lag / Ecto mimed bison / This is the haunt of roulette dares / Ruse of metacarpi”. Therefore, the feeling that the writing is trying so hard to be smart that the only target it is hitting is that of silliness is not so constant. Yet, in spite of clear evolution, lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala still struggles to make words sound good side by side, as seen in “My nails peel back / When the taxidermist ruined / Goose stepped the freckling impatience”. His tendency to opt for flowery vocabulary has two negative consequences: firstly, it invariably implodes the fluidity of the lines, which is a quality one would expect to gain from employing odd words; secondly, it punctually makes the verses so indecipherable that their meaning becomes lost and the plot’s impact is diminished.

The joy of listening to The Mars Volta, however, mostly stems from the band’s daring and inventive instrumentation. On that front, a few complaints can be made, since “Frances the Mute” features some electronic interludes that do not build interesting ideas and, in comparison to “De-Loused in the Comatorium”, the record does not create spectacular melodic moments with the same consistency. Nevertheless, most of what its five tracks and seventy-six minutes offer is satisfying. As opener “Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus” evidences, the group is still heavily toying with dynamics. Starting with a quiet acoustic intro of guitar and voice, it does not take more than one minute for the band to explode out of the gate with ferocity, as the rhythm section of Jon Theodore and Juan Alderete de la Peña lock onto an impossibly fast groove adorned by the hyperactive guitar of Omar Rodríguez-López and the high-pitched voice of Cedric. As the tune evolves, though, the band stops for a calm and seemingly improvised instrumental break, rises back up to an orchestra-backed apex, reaches a coda where the song implodes, and finally makes the piece evaporate into a mass of electronic beeps.

Out of the other four cuts, two follow a similar pattern of loudness and quietness. “L’Via L’Viaquez”, narrating the protagonist’s encounter with his aunt, plays with the band’s mixture of American and Hispanic heritage, possibly ranking as the most obvious example in the group’s discography of that blend. Its fierce hard rock verses are sung in Spanish; contrarily, its choruses, which turn down the volume to fall into the sway of Caribbean percussion and piano, are written in English. Meanwhile, closer “Cassandra Gemini” is – in all of its thirty-two-minute glory – a giant among other stars of progressive rock. Carrying the record’s best chorus, whose lyrics nicely encapsulate the journey of Vismund, it feels massive, and as it goes through its multiple phases, it makes good use of an orchestra, a brass section, electronic elements, and – of course – a whole lot of fast hard rock madness to barely let listeners breathe.

Differing from these tracks, the pair of “The Widow” and “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore” show other, more accessible, facets of The Mars Volta. Rightfully chosen as the first single, the former is – surprisingly – sheer pop rock goodness: clocking in at three minutes, when its dull electronic outro is discounted, it is a ballad with acoustic picking in its verses, a beautiful melodic explosion in its chorus, and a blistering guitar solo. In turn, the latter, is slow mass of echoing guitars, noises, and horns that seems to be floating in outer space, threatening to come back to the ground in its dramatic brass-infused chorus, and building to a climatic final part.

Even with its reduced, but not totally eliminated, lyrical problems, “Frances the Mute” winds up not being as enjoyable as “De-Loused in the Comatorium”. From a musical perspective, it is not as significant of a revelation as that record, regardless of its stronger Latin roots and its duo of calmer tracks. Furthermore, though great, its heavier, fast-paced, and more expansive tunes – which are, in the end, the heart and soul of the band – for the most part do not exhibit the major hooks boasted by nearly all the songs from its predecessor. Still, the album remains as further proof that, in the peak of their powers, The Mars Volta were an excellent progressive rock act; one that, to a degree, showed the trappings of the genre, but that – at the same time – was good enough to give a generation without many contemporary examples of the style their own musically adventurous idols to admire.

White Light/White Heat

white_light_white_heat

Album: White Light/White Heat

Artist: The Velvet Underground

Released: January 30th, 1968

Highlights: White Light/White Heat, Here She Comes Now, I Heard Her Call My Name, Sister Ray

Given its indisputable status as one of the greatest albums of all time, it is hard to say there is one particular variable that made “The Velvet Underground & Nico” be so remarkable. Yet, much of its irresistible, dangerous, dark, and subversive aura stemmed from the balance of forces that existed within the group; more specifically, the one that consisted of the dirty street-smart rock and roll power of Lou Reed, and the avant-garde spirit of John Cale. Although much of the writing was done by the former, which kept the songs firmly grounded on the format and hooks expected out of pop music, the latter’s desire to experiment with sounds, arrangements, and multiple sorts of atmospheric elements was passed onto the band members themselves, including Reed, and – consequently – leaked into the fabric of the tracks that were cut.

It was a harmony so perfectly adjusted that in the spectrum that denotes the gap between pure rock and roll energy and inscrutable artistic delusion, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” stood precisely in the middle of that range; achieving a hard-to-match stability that allowed its most significant tunes, like the plodding menace of “Venus in Furs”, to be fierce but mysterious; violent but elegant. As the second, and final, album recorded while Cale was in the band, “White Light/White Heat” exhibits that very same battle between opposing forces; however, in its case, the result of the struggle is clearly askew, because the musical chaos it contains could not possibly be the product of a finely tuned and perfectly stabilized balance.

It is, though, not the case where one side has obviously come out on top. As such, claiming “White Light/White Heat” was birthed by the submission of rock to avant-garde aspirations is somewhat off. The album exists as it is because the chemical reaction between guitar music and weird noise, which was quite well-managed in “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, has suddenly gone out of control. And in the wake of the explosion caused by the accident, the creature that was once capable of restraint has been transformed into a berserk entity that lives in loudness, thrives in destruction, and indulges in disturbing forms of sentimental expression.

“White Light/White Heat” is not rock brutally murdered by rabid art: it is music corrupted by insanity; it is sound affected by odd creative whims. Because, when it is all said and done, amidst the overwhelming noise, the unstoppable desire to wreck, and the relentless attempts at reaching for all that is ugly, the album rarely loses its ability to please, be it by unearthing the occasional beautiful melody, landing on the always desired musical hooks, and bringing forth those grand moments of release. There is method to the madness of “White Light/White Heat”, and that gives a purpose to the sonic assault it presents through most of its duration other than producing shock and confronting audiences, as it is also able to entertain almost thoroughly.

Its opening track, which lends its name to the album, is surf rock on amphetamines not just because its lyrics deal with the effects of the drug, but also thanks to how its music might as well have been made while the band was high on them. Propelled by a pounding piano, it has a call-and-response structure that includes harmonies that nod to The Beach Boys, only the neat California lads were hallucinating so much they mistook a dirty bathroom for a clean studio and failed to keep it all together for too long, as the whole performance deteriorates into mindless banging as it reaches the two-minute mark.

The pair of “Here She Comes Now” and “I Heard Her Call My Name”, meanwhile, stand on opposite sides of the aesthetic scale. Although the band sounds absolutely aloof through it, the first is a beautiful and melodic interlude whose ambiguous lyrics, which leave the door open for one to question whether Lou is talking about his guitar or a woman, are at the same time underlined by gentle instrumental work by both Reed and Morrison as well as, in true avant-garde fashion, partially demolished by a repetitive pattern that goes nowhere. Contrarily, the second, which also bets on a circular format, is ugly, visceral, energetic, and delightfully grating. In it, Morrison, Cale, and Tucker stay locked into a demented pulse; simultaneously, Reed’s guitar – mixed as loudly as possible – spirals away madly, spitting venom into the ears of listeners, who are greeted by one of rock’s most wicked solos while the singer rants as if possessed and the rest of the group occasionally repeats the song’s title.

And then there is “Sister Ray”. Relating a story that involves transvestites, an orgy, as well as a heroin deal that goes wrong and ends up in murder, it is a seventeen-minute jam put to tape in one take that begins with a simple guitar riff and slowly mutates into a monstrous cacophony. As legend tells it, the session’s recording engineer refused to sit around and listen to what the band was about to perform, choosing instead to simply press the button and walk out. Exaggerated tale or not, “Sister Ray” puts together quite a case for it being true, for it speeds up and slows down wildly and features all four members of the band competing to be the one playing the loudest instrument in the room, as Reed vies for that spot with blistering guitar solos but is ultimately outdone by Cale, who causes an absolutely glorious racket with an organ whose volume would probably get him arrested for attempted manslaughter in any civilized country.

Even though often thrilling to the greatest degree, the wildness of “White Light/White Heat” does not always click, as it generates a couple of lesser moments. “The Gift” is an eight-minute spoken-word track with vocals and instruments mixed to separate channels that, despite featuring a fantastic jam, gets boring after one has listened to its disturbing tale once; and “Lady Godiva’s Operation” is just interesting, with a lot of that value emerging thanks to how its music and sound effects work together to bring to life the messed up lobotomy of a transsexual woman. But given how much of an effort the record puts towards pushing the lines of what is musically and thematically acceptable, missteps are nothing but utterly natural. After all, the process of challenging norms and breaking rules is bound to give one a few bruises; these, however, turn out to be more than worthy if the subversiveness yields a few good results. And in the case of “White Light/White Heat”, The Velvet Underground sure uncover some precious music that would not have been found out if nobody was willing to take the mad leap.

In The Wake Of Poseidon

wake_of_poseidon

Album: In the Wake of Poseidon

Artist: King Crimson

Released: May 15th, 1970

Highlights: Pictures of a City, Cadence and Cascade, In the Wake of Poseidon

Attached to King Crimson’s debut is a story that is all too familiar to many albums of the era, especially to those that dared to tread into somewhat unfamiliar territory. Upon its 1969 release, “In the Court of the Crimson King” garnered mixed reviews that ranged from comments praising its blend of traditional European music with classic rock in the building of epic progressive tunes to critical pieces that labeled the band’s junction of those same elements as utterly disposable and silly. With time, however, the general perception on the record shifted to a much fairer angle, as slowly but surely it earned a position as one of the cornerstones of the genre to which it belongs and also as, quite simply, one of the greatest albums of all time.

It is hard to say exactly how much of that initial irregular reception affected the group; as possibly one may argue that, if showered with praise and commercial success right then, King Crimson would become – from the get go – a stable entity. But the fact of the matter is that by the time the band went into the studio to assemble their second work, “In the Wake of Poseidon”, the line-up of “In the Court of the Crimson King” had evaporated. Vocalist and bassist Greg Lake had left to form the trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer; while drummer Michael Giles as well as Ian McDonald, who was the one responsible for the woodwinds that were so vital to the sonority of the debut, had quit shortly after the group’s first American tour.

Therefore, even though both Lake and Giles do contribute to “In the Wake of Poseidon” as session musicians, with the former singing in all but one track and with the latter being behind the kit whenever the instrument is called upon, a great portion of the album’s musical decisions fell on the shoulders of guitarist Robert Fripp, who together with lyricist Peter Sinfield appear as the sole de facto members of King Crimson on the album’s credits. And perhaps it is from such personnel turmoil that “In the Wake of Poseidon” gains its most distinctive characteristic, for rather than presenting a notable evolution in sound when compared to its predecessor, it actually comes off like the product of a band that has not had the time to evolve.

In fact, such lack of evolution is so blatant that – as its title points out – “In the Wake of Poseidon” feels a whole lot like a copy of “In the Court of the Crimson King”. As if the albums had been made using the very same mold, parallels can be traced between most of their major tracks. “Pictures of a City”, for instance, works as the album’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”, since it boasts most of the features of that classic: distorted vocals, a pounding riff that – grounded on blues – would not feel out of place in a heavy metal record, accompanying horns that add to the volume of the music whilst giving the track a slight jazzy edge, and a lengthy instrumental break that toys with tempo shifts and leaves plenty of space for Fripp to execute his signature guitar magic.

“Cadence and Cascade”, meanwhile, is a counterpart to “I Talk to the Wind”, not just because it is the quiet ballad that follows the hectic opener, but due to how it feels like it comes from a different time, as it could have been easily written by a medieval bard sitting in a garden surrounded by folkloric creatures; this time around, though, instead of being plugged into the electricity as he gently picks strings in the midst of such idyllic scene, the musician has gone appropriately acoustic. Finally, the title song is another take on the musical theme of “Epitaph”: a slow and relatively long tune whose sad and dramatic melody gains epic contours thanks to the usage of a mellotron to emulate the effect of a sweeping orchestra.

Still, “In the Wake of Poseidon” is not totally about recycling ideas, even if a very big part of it indeed is. Thus, drops of originality do appear. For starters, the album uses three small acoustic and vocal numbers titled “Peace” as bookends to its sides; given their size, though, they are more of a neat feature than a considerable artistic change. On a more significant scale, there is “Cat Food”, which combines a freestyling piano, loose guitar lines, and energetic playful vocals that occasionally harmonize to take King Crimson into the realms of improvisational jazz, elevating a tune that could be dynamited by its silly lyrics into the status of a noteworthy cut. At the same time, and on a much more negative note, there is “The Devil’s Triangle”, an eleven-minute three-part instrumental that slowly builds chaos around marching drums and loud mellotrons but that goes absolutely nowhere, drawing comparisons to the ten-minute woodwind noodling that closes out “Moonchild” from “In the Court of the Crimson King” as a moment when the band traveled way too far into progressive indulgence.

Despite its problems regarding both matters of originality and the existence of a lengthy song that does not justify its presence, “In the Wake of Poseidon” is still strong due to the simple fact that most of it is very enjoyable. Surely, “Pictures of a City” and “In the Wake of Poseidon” do not hold a candle to the tunes that inspired them, but not many do. The first, however, is an absolute thrill whether it is rocking or spiraling out of control; while the second is grand and moving in equal parts. “Cadence and Cascade”, on the other hand, is a huge step-up over the already excellent “I Talk to the Wind”, for besides exhibiting a more tasteful arrangement that tones down on the flutes, it simply overpowers that track on the strength of its vastly superior and utterly gorgeous melody. And to top it all off, “Cat Food” is stupid but fun.

To many groups of the era, the meager months that separated the sessions of “In the Court of the Crimson King” from those of “In the Wake of Poseidon” would have been enough to guarantee noteworthy musical evolution. To King Crimson, though, that interval was used by the band to completely fall apart. As such, regardless of general artistic stagnation and a glaring repeated misstep, it is a bit of a miracle that the album was not only finalized but that it came out as great as it did, showing that – as much of the rock world would come to realize later on – tenacity and talent are two of the essential components that power the genius of Robert Fripp and the ever-daring musical moves of King Crimson.

Free

free

Album: Free

Artist: Iggy Pop

Released: September 6th, 2019

Highlights: Loves Missing, James Bond, Page

A series of atmospheric hums emerge inside a wide and sparse soundscape. A duel of freestyling trumpets, one that seems to come out from somewhere in the depths of a dirty alley and another that appears to be far closer, is sparked. And suddenly, as the relaxing immersive racket reaches its apex, Iggy Pop shows up to deliver four words that seem to encompass the essence of his eighteenth album. “I wanna be free / I wanna be free / Free”, he speaks with that signature low tone, which has characterized him through his whole solo career but that has become surprisingly solemn and maybe even wise with age, before vanishing like a voice from beyond that has breezed by listeners with the goal of delivering a succinct message that hides some sort of major revelation.

If freedom is what Iggy wanted, then that is exactly what he has found with his 2019 release, “Free”. Following “Post Pop Depression”, his collaboration with Josh Homme and quite possibly his most successful album since 1977’s “Lust for Life”, Iggy could have certainly taken the easy way out, gathered the very same band, and built yet another testosterone-infused album that is as heavy and dark as it is sexy and insightful. But apparently, returning to good old straightforward rock after an interval of two albums and sixteen years was enough for the singer to realize that, ultimately, the genre that launched him to the world alongside The Stooges is also a hand that constrains him.

Suffocated by it, “Free” works like some sort of declaration of independence by Iggy Pop. Its unexpected style is likely to make it an album that his fans, especially those who jumped back into the bandwagon after “Post Pop Depression”, did not want him to produce at this moment in time. However, its content, title, and opening statement broadcast in blatantly defined waves that “Free” is the album Iggy Pop wanted to create as of 2019. In a way, it is strange that such a personal message is delivered through a record in which only three out of the ten songs have him as a co-author. On the other hand, though, such characteristic reveals that “Free” has a nature so urgent that it just had to be unveiled whether Iggy had the material in him or not.

The result is a piece that is, in equal parts, odd, charming, irregular, and daring. “Free” could be labeled as a jazz album thanks to how its most prominent instrument is, by far, the trumpet of Leron Thomas, whose improvisational spirit is so dominating that he gets writing credit for nine of the record’s tunes. It could also be filed under the ambient category, for the moments when Iggy is supported by background noise, usually accompanied by a horn, are more numerous than those when he has a full band behind him. Finally, it would not be out of place in the spoken-word universe, as it holds a bigger quantity of talking than of singing. What “Free” really is, though, is all of those musical moods combined into a brief but meaningful package.

All in all, two are the cuts in “Free” that approach what one would expect out of a contemporary Iggy Pop record. “Loves Missing”, the finest tune in the album by a large margin, still has fragments of “Post Pop Depression”, as it starts with a dangerous combination of drums and insinuating guitar licks before slowly accentuating its dark sexy vibe when more guitars come in and the beat gets progressively more chaotic. Meanwhile, “James Bond” uses a bit of the same recipe, with the difference that stands between both songs being the fact that while the former grows by moving forward, the latter does so by going in circles with an ever-increasing intensity. Everywhere else, “Free” poses a considerable challenge to those that step into it.

Even if there is a clear distinction between the album’s two halves, that difficult aura exists in both parts. The first five tracks of “Free”, with the exception of the opening number, feel more like fully developed songs. In addition to “Loves Missing” and “James Bond”, that initial segment also includes “Sonali” and “Dirty Sanchez”; however, where the first pair borders on conventional, the second duo is positively weird. “Sonali” has an unusual beat and a myriad of electronic adornments that, at least instrumentally, make it sound a whole lot like a Radiohead song, and Iggy Pop wears his Thom Yorke hat proudly by trying to deliver lines and melody amidst very uncommon musical timing. Quite contrarily, “Dirty Sanchez” is an old-school Iggy Pop rant that includes ridiculous character-building lines such as “You desensitized sluts / Are always playing with your butts”, with the twist being that it is backed up by a marching drum, an out of control trumpet, a call-and-response structure, and a guitar and bass that try to keep the madness anchored to a solid groove.

Following that segment, the second half brings with it a myriad of spoken word tracks that are perhaps a bit too tightly packed together for their own good. As different mixtures of atmospheric sounds and wild horns fill up the vast silence, Iggy Pop basically sits and reads poetry: two original texts, “Glow in the Dark” and “The Dawn”, as well as Lou Reed’s “We Are the People” and Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night”. Although Iggy’s voice does have the potential to make even a cake recipe sound engaging, it is unable to turn these tunes into must-listens, even when they consist of words as poignant as those of Reed and Thomas. Thankfully, though, the final part of “Free” does have a positive note, which comes in the form of “Page”, where an echoing picked guitar brings new spice to the side’s usual instrumentation while Iggy – taking full advantage of his voice – plays the role of a crooner as he sings a track that is beautiful, wishful, and moving.

Despite its highlights, which are indeed great additions to the Iggy Pop canon, “Free” never quite gains enough traction to be a good record. “Dirty Sanchez” is so terrible it is almost embarrassing, and not even the funny turns its rant takes can save it; “Sonali” simply falls flat; and the absurd amount of spoken-word tracks the album carries drags it down, even if none of them are downright bad. As such, “Free” winds up being a record that, while rather meaningful to Iggy Pop himself, will likely go down as one of the weakest entries in his discography, because although the album’s flirtations with experimental constructions and jazz are interesting – not to mention a nice nod to “Blackstar” by David Bowie, who was a crucial figure in Iggy Pop’s life – they are just not carried out with the required spark.

Let England Shake

let_england_shake

Album: Let England Shake

Artist: PJ Harvey

Released: February 14th, 2011

Highlights: The Last Living Rose, The Glorious Land, All and Everyone, In the Dark Places

A séance conducted over the sounds of British folk music. That is what PJ Harvey’s eighth studio album, “Let England Shake”, appears to be. Recorded inside an isolated church in the United Kingdom’s countryside, it seems the building’s proximity to the sea and the green vastness that surrounds it led the often brilliant Polly Jean to meditate on her country’s past, present, and future. She looks to crimes and atrocities England perpetrated in the name of its perceived exceptionalism and for the glory of its empire, she sees a nation that is still trying to accept its reduced role in the world’s economy, and she raises questions about the paths it must follow and the doubts it must overcome during a century that is still in its infancy. “Let England Shake” calls upon the ghosts of the dead soldiers of the First World War (“On Battleship Hill”) and summons the souls of the children who were left orphaned or deformed due to the human greed for land and power (“The Glorious Land”), and out of their graves they come.

The consistent ghastly nature of “Let England Shake” does not exist solely because PJ Harvey spends many of her words poetically describing or alluding to mistakes and ideas that have left piles of corpses in their wake. Alongside her closest collaborators – multi-instrumentalists Mick Harvey and John Parish, as well as producer Flood – she strikes upon a brand of folk music that seems to be floating in a spiritual realm. The guitars, the drums, the bass, and her new instrumental acquisition, the auto-harp, stay suspended into the air like a faint English fog, and with a wispy high-register tone that is far removed from the roughness of her garage-rock origins, PJ sounds like a siren that has witnessed all the events she narrates. Her voice is not just that of a mythological creature that speaks from inside the mist, though, it is that of the past itself, as if she is channeling the memories of the hills, leaves, tombstones, and valleys that have watched the stupidity of the human race unfold time and time again.

Although it is easy to think of “Let England Shake” as a record that points its fingers exclusively at the artist’s country of birth, much of its beauty actually stems from the universal nature of its haunting message. There is, of course, a predilection for rubbing salt on English wounds: she sarcastically derides how England sees itself as better than its European counterparts even though it is just as prone to modern issues (“The Last Living Rose”) and often returns to the Gallipoli Campaign (“All and Everyone”, “On Battleship Hill”, “The Colour of the Earth”), a major defeat for the British Empire during World War I. However, when she speaks of the failings of diplomacy (“The Words That Maketh Murder”), the dead left by a blind sense of self-righteousness (“The Glorious Land”), and numerous wars (when her lyrics generically depict the despair of soldiers and the anguish found on the occasional silence of battlefields), she is targeting Western civilization as a whole. As the title cut states, Harvey sees the hemisphere weighted down by the dead it left throughout history, and the music of “Let England Shake” implies they do not ever really go away and that, to progress, the West needs to accept what it did, fix its existing shortcomings, and work together to stop going down the same dangerous path in order to avoid repeating those mistakes.

“Let England Shake” simultaneously respects the traditions of folk music and updates the genre to make it appealing to a contemporary audience. Whether it is in the simplicity of “England”, PJ Harvey’s love letter to her country; in the grandeur of “On Battleship Hill”; in the catchy call-and-response construction of “The Glorious Land”; in the poppy radio-friendliness of “The Words That Maketh Murder”; or in the clever sampling done in “Written On the Forehead”; PJ is, at the same time, expanding the boundaries of her songwriting, pushing forward the genre in which she chose to set the record, and creating tunes that somehow strike a balance between being timeless due to their remarkable qualities, ancient because they seem to come from a distant era, and modern as – despite the artistic boldness of their construction – they easily insert themselves into the current mainstream musical vocabulary. With “Let England Shake”, PJ Harvey and her collaborators created a 21st century masterpiece; an album that will forever stand as one of music’s finest achievements.

The Idiot

the_idiot

Album: The Idiot

Artist: Iggy Pop

Released: March 18th, 1977

Highlights: Funtime, China Girl, Dum Dum Boys

When one thinks of Iggy Pop, the first image that comes to mind is certainly that of a muscled and shirtless maniac fronting a reckless and dirty rock and roll band while dressed in impossibly tight jeans, stage diving with a certain frequency, emitting wild animalistic grunts, and – in his most insane years – smearing his chest with meat and cutting himself in public. Four years after surviving the implosion of The Stooges – the punk rock pioneers that went down in flames with the intensity and speed most expected them to – Iggy Pop emerged from the wreckage with “The Idiot”; however, unknowing fans who walked into the record found none of the bloody, violent, and sweaty environment that Iggy tended to feed off from to trigger the raw power of his instincts. Like a record by The Stooges, “The Idiot” is frighteningly menacing, meaning that Iggy is still effectively able to spook; unlike the three classic albums produced by the band from Detroit, though, “The Idiot” does not achieve such menace through brutality.

“The Idiot” is like wandering through the darkest part of town, finding the courage to enter one of its most poorly-kept alleys, and stumbling upon a creepy nightclub. There is this odd nearly mechanical music coming from within, and its conjunction with the odd-looking characters that come in and out of the establishment creates such an intriguing atmosphere one cannot help but go in. In there, amidst the smoke and the almost total lack of lights, visitors discover Iggy Pop – once the godfather of punk – has suddenly transitioned into a ghost-like figure whose deep voice floats over layers of electronic beats and sparse guitar riffs let out by his new band. Instead of tackling the stripped down aggressive somberness of the post-punk exposed by groups such as Joy Division, Iggy dresses the genre up in industrial noise and weird beeps while penning slow-tempo songs that retain the style’s tendency to let rhythm instruments lead.

The unexpected setting, aura, and experimentalism the album broadcasts are not without reason. Its alternative electronic nature is distinctively European, and it is no wonder its nucleus was put to tape in Berlin, perhaps the continent’s most avant-garde city. After falling to the bottom of the well of drug addiction following The Stooges’ breakup, Iggy Pop was lifted from the shadows by David Bowie himself – one of his biggest admirers. Therefore, it was under the influence of Bowie and guided by David’s restless artistic spirit that Iggy Pop put “The Idiot” together, and it is no accident much of the album’s musicality nods to the legendary Berlin Trilogy of records Bowie would construct shortly thereafter. Its dark electronic vibe stems from Bowie’s interest and first experiments in the genre, making “The Idiot” as much of an Iggy Pop record as a David Bowie work, and both artists gained a lot from the encounter.

“The Idiot”, however, is not just about collaboration, atmosphere, and experimentation. Great records need great songs; and the album is solid in that regard. Built around cyclical and restlessly repeating hooks (like the beat of “Sister Midnight” and the piano of “Nightclubbing”) and often opting for thinly structured tracks that do not present significant changes between verses and choruses, the music serves as a bed for Iggy Pop to spin his most obsessive lyrics yet and sing free of constraints, which he does wonderfully on “Dum Dum Boys” (a seven-minute epic about his old band-mates and whose constant and unchanging guitar riff is a highlight of the record), on the poppy “China Girl”, and on the closing “Mass Production”, an industrial beauty that alternates chaos and noise with bliss. “The Idiot” may not be truly representative of who Iggy is as an artist, but it is certainly the album that allowed him to move on with his life and give the world the wonderful music his solo career has yielded; Bowie must be thanked.

Berlin

berlin

Album: Berlin

Artist: Lou Reed

Released: July 1st, 1973

Highlights: Men of Good Fortune, Caroline Says II, The Kids, The Bed

Much of the rightful praise earned by The Velvet Underground, the band that introduced the musical and songwriting talent of Lou Reed to the world, comes from how the group was able to balance aggressive rock and roll with a knack for bold experimentation that verged on avant-garde. And that mixture always had a clear source, Lou Reed and John Cale, the act’s two creative driving forces during its first couple of albums; artists who represented, respectively, those two veins that guided The Velvet Underground through their pioneering trail in the back alleys of rock music. It comes as no shock, then, that without Cale, Reed would take the band into a more straightforward – yet brilliant – path during their final two releases (“The Velvet Underground” and “Loaded”) and start his solo career with a pair of works of stripped down rock and roll. That stream of borderline mainstream music, though, would come to an end with “Berlin”, his third solo project following the departure from the legendary band he had birthed.

Upon its release, “Berlin” was unique within the Reed canon for many reasons; first and foremost, though, its distinctive vibe originated in its theatrical nature. It is devoid of tracks that have the pop appeal of “Satellite of Love”; likewise, it lacks the thrilling rock of “Sweet Jane”. Instead, it tells a sordid tale that, save for its modern setting, would not be out of place on a Shakespearean stage; and it does so with music that comes off far more like accompanying pieces to a scene that plays out under the spotlights than regular tracks found on an album from its decade. Through the ten songs, listeners view Jim and Caroline meet and start their love story (“Berlin”); watch their relationship deteriorate (“Caroline Says I”); get a glimpse into the couple’s drug addiction (“How Do You Think It Feels”); contemplate Caroline’s journey into prostitution and Jim’s fear of losing control over her (“Oh, Jim”); become witnesses to brutal domestic violence (“Caroline Says II”); see the children be taken away from them (“The Kids”); and gaze as Caroline kills herself and Jim is left to think about his past and future (“The Bed”).

Reed tells that brutal story as if he were reading the classifieds of a New York newspaper, which makes the awfully sad tale sound completely commonplace. In a way, Lou is telling his audience life is like that for some people, and there is nothing that can be done about it. Such a mundane tone creates an intriguing dichotomy: it makes listeners passively accept what is being portrayed, connecting with the conformist nature human beings have programmed into their genes; at the same time, by doing so, it amplifies the sorrow found in the plot, for only in a disturbingly twisted world and in the mind of a disgustingly cold person would such a fate as the one of Caroline trigger indifference. “Berlin”, therefore, is psychologically masterful, and the conversational tone of Reed’s lyrics and singing is an artistic statement.

“Berlin” is Lou Reed exploring an experimental side he had lost when Cale left The Velvet Underground, and in a way it is Reed finding a distinguished style of songwriting and singing he would tackle through his career. “Berlin” is Reed reaching a new level of idiosyncrasy he had yet to find on his own. It is not thoroughly brilliant, as its instrumentation alternates between tracks that are too busy and disjointed (“Lady Day”) and songs that are monotonic acoustic dirges (“The Bed”) that while emotionally poignant do not present enough shifts and hooks to remain engaging through their running time. However, it is entirely powerful and invariably thought-provoking. For the good and for the bad, it is impossible not to have a strong opinion about it, which may have been Reed’s goal when he chose to talk about the sordid lives of those who live on the fringes of society; those who succumb to the harshness of the world.