Lou Reed | Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse (Matador)

cd_lou-reed.jpgBerlin has become one of Reed’s best-regarded studio albums, leading him to recreate it in a live 2006 performance which is now available on CD.





Berlin, Lou Reed’s third solo album since leaving the Velvet Underground, was less than a success when released in 1973. American critics particularly disliked it, with Rolling Stone’s Stephen Davis describing it as "patently offensive" and accused Reed of depicting "a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide."

Now isn’t that just so 1973? Vice President Spiro Agnew, who resigned that very year and then pleaded nolo contendere to corruption charges, was also famous for alliterative hyperbole (provided by speech writers including William Safire and Pat Buchanan). His oft-quoted catchphrases such as "nattering nabobs of negativism," "pusillanimous pussyfooters" and "elite corps of impudent snobs" have far outlived any memory of his accomplishments.

The American people had the last laugh in Spiro’s case, as with his boss Richard Nixon, who resigned a year later before he could be impeached. And so did Lou Reed, because Berlin has become one of his best-regarded studio albums (Rolling Stone named it one of the 500 greatest albums of all time), leading Reed to recreate it in a live 2006 performance which toured to 30 cities and is now available on CD.

Berlin consists of a series of songs about two drug users whose lives spiral downward to a predictably unhappy conclusion. This material should shock no one today, but it 1973 it seemed to be a sharp departure from Reed’s previous work. And heaven forfend artists should ever give us anything other than what we expect: some people find that really threatening and are likely to defend their preconceptions in the matter displayed by Stephen Davis.

Fortunately, enough time has passed and tempers have sufficiently cooled that Berlin can be evaluated for what it is, rather than for what it is not. Just from listening to the album (and having missed out on the original controversy), to me it doesn’t seem such a huge departure from Transformer, Reed’s breakout success of the previous year. But neither does it qualify as a "rock opera" or anything remotely as grand: it’s a concept album and a moderately interesting at that.

The sound on the 2006 album has been left a bit harsh, as if the engineers wanted to emphasize that this was a live rather than studio performance. The songs use an extremely wide dynamic range, which may make the album better for home listening than for playing in your car: if you turn it up loud enough to hear the soft sections over the ambient automobile noise, you get blasted out of your seat by the loud bit, which arrive quite unexpectedly. True to the spirit of the original album, the tracks are long (several over eight minutes) and the musical arrangements are elaborate, using 30 musicians plus a 12-voice choir.

Besides the 10 songs from the 1973 album, Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse includes three encores, "Candy Says," "Rock Minuet" and "Sweet Jane." B | Sarah Boslaugh

RIYL: The Academy in Peril; Transformer; Stop Making Sense

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