Coming from such a definitive New Yorker, someone I’ve always figured would be a curmudgeonly, old-fashioned Sinatra-type, Lou Reed’s The Raven has a very “made in Canada” sound to it.
By “made in Canada,” I am referring not to The Tragically Hip or any other Canadian groups but to the sticker that adorns the back of albums released by progressive mid-western records labels such as Touch and Go and Quarterstick.
“A Thousand Departed Friends,” for instance, stomps around on a peg-leg rhythm and discordant guitars that I would associate more readily with Shellac or Sweep The Leg Johnny than the Velvet Underground. “The Bed” is an effective, minimal track based on a subtle, repetitive cello and spooky guitars that wouldn’t sound the least bit out of place on a For Carnation album. Along the same lines, “Call On Me” leaves the integrity of its lyrics intact at the expense of an easily remembered melody in much the same way that Chicago’s Joan of Arc does. The untraditional guitar introduction could have come straight from the Joan of Arc songbook, and the simple, meandering piano line throughout does nothing to discourage such a comparison.
While incorporating modern styles is commendable, guest appearances are always a thing to be wary of. Although too often used to liven up poor material, the appearances by Laurie Anderson, Ornette Coleman, The Blind Boys of Alabama and others on this record add to its theatrical quality, a virtue that allows the material to be so stylistically diverse without seeming unfocused. The appearances by actors Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe compliment this concept especially well, with Buscemi providing an entertaining intermission midway through the record and Dafoe giving an inspired reading of Poe’s “The Raven.”
Not until the second to last of the album’s 21 songs did I find what I was afraid of. Just when I had finally let my guard down, I come across the unbelievably terrible-sounding radio single “Who Am I?”
Not since Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” has such a lyrically poignant performance been marred by such repugnant production. The man responsible appears to be Rick Wake, known for his work with Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez, but he was assuredly put up to it by the AOL Time-Warner bosses, who, for some reason, believe that a production style that works for J-Lo will work for Lou Reed.
Fortunately, Reed must have been even more upset than I was and he does not let the album end on such a sour note.
As he sings in the album’s closing track, “Guardian Angel,” “the only way to ruin it would be for me not to trust me.” Trusting his longstanding instinct for the earthier qualities of music, Reed puts together a simple, direct and spiritual track to close a theatrical album.