Tuesday, January 15, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #73 - Lou Reed – The Blue Mask

This is where Mr. Heroin grows up. There had been increasingly overt hints that he might go this way on his previous three albums, but here he’s fully engaged with opening up his adult side rather than merely flirting with the idea. Which is not to say that he’s given up the extremes of his youth. Or rather, he may have given them up – when the album was recorded he was clean and sober, had married and settled into a home in New Jersey – but he hadn’t forgotten those extremes. Maybe he wasn’t the reporter filling us in on the seedy underbelly of New York nightlife anymore, but his writing stemmed from that base even if he wasn’t sending his reports from the gutter. Predictably, fans of his early sex/drugs/rock & roll phase have had strong reactions against the album, connecting only with the music at its most brutal as in the harrowing title cut’s examination of a masochist that makes “Venus in Furs” seem like a naïvely decadent tale and in the illumination of a paranoid drug addict’s mindset in “Waves of Fear,” featuring a brilliantly splintery and abstract solo from co-guitarist Robert Quine. Some may also connect with the straightforward examination of the alcoholic of “Underneath the Bottle” or the disturbingly deadpan delivery of “The Gun,” recalling his unjudgmental tales of squalor from the early Velvet Underground days.
But the claque of fans expecting him to live out their sordid fantasies for the rest his career don’t get Lou. And since the record’s release in 1982 they’ve had a hard time understanding the simple beauty and delicacy of songs like “My House,” celebrating his friend and mentor Delmore Schwartz, or "Women," in which he extols Bach, poetry and wine with his sex, and "Heavenly Arms," in which he extols the virtues of then-wife Sylvia. And there’s no parallel in his catalog for the direct, adult rumination of something like “The Day John Kennedy Died,” featuring Doane Perry’s light touch on the drums and Fernando Saunders’ evocative fretless bass work, both of which help define the sound of this album. Of course Perry and Saunders can also rise to the occasion to meet the muscular drive of “The Blue Mask” or “Waves of Fear” on command but it’s the way the band interacts across the board in all modes here that defines the way Lou’s career would move from this album forward. It’s not that he’d never married delicacy and noise, he did that from the very first Velvets album, but he’d never written things in such a direct and straightforwardly adult manner before. He’d also never delivered a vocal performance like this, putting aside the “flat bark” and sneer Lester Bangs identified in his 1970’s albums in favor of a vocal with real strength and reach, especially on the two powerhouse cuts, and made all the more affecting because of the simple beauty and understatement of his love songs.
Sure, there’s some rough stuff here, but it’s something Lou is decidedly positing as part of his past, and it’s that dichotomy between the rockers and the ballads that more than ever in his career throws people for a loop. From here, he’d continue to mine this vein of material for several more albums, most notably this one’s terrific follow-up, the (presently) import only Legendary Hearts, culminating in his most likeable album, New York. But The Blue Mask is where he first drew together the threads of his 70’s and with a new, great group in tow knotted them into one of his best ever albums that would point a new way forward for his career. -Patrick

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