Lou Reed at the Chicago Theatre

By Mark Guarino

This week, Lou Reed turned 61, an age when many of his peers already have downshifted into the realm of nostalgia tours, reunion albums and other inevitable signs of rock decrepitude.

But Reed was never one for the usual fan appeasement or style recycling. Instead, he marked his new decade by releasing one of the most maddening and challenging albums of his career.

“The Raven” (Warner Bros./Reprise) is twined with the poems and stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Not simply a literal re-telling of the gothic writer’s works, the album is an impressionistic portrait of Poe seen through Reed’s eyes. Although available on a slimmed-down single disc, the richer double-disc set is the type of album that’s gone the way of the dinosaur these days. Comprised of spoken word monologues, radio play dramatizations, rock blowouts and experimental noise, the 47 tracks over two-plus hours require a noble patience. On the surface it may appear to be an unwieldy mess of pretension, but upon digging into it and coming out the other side, the album proves to be a fascinating if peculiar journey.

Reed and Poe make natural bedfellows. Although Poe made his living in Baltimore as a literary critic, he was a prolific poet and short fiction writer, delving into supernatural worlds that had more to do with obsession, metaphysical mystery and psychological horror rather than ghouls and monsters. Born an orphan, he suffered from drug abuse, alcoholism and depression his entire life, dying in 1849 at age 40, his body found curled up in a Baltimore gutter. Although he was championed more in Europe, he did get a taste of fame four years before his death with the publication of his poem, “The Raven,” one of the most harrowing portrayals of lost love in the literary canon.

One of the first rock songwriters to elevate hedonism to high art, Reed is no stranger to the conceptual bleakness. As the founder and lead singer of the Velvet Underground, Reed undid the optimism of the flower power generation and instead looked to rock and roll as a vehicle for a new kind of scary primitivism. Throughout his unpredictable career, he was relentless in trying new things, from straightahead pop (1972’s “Transformer”) to blankets of white noise (1975’s “Metal Machine Music”) to more conventional craftwork (1978’s “Street Hassle”) and gritty and lean street rock (1989’s “New York”).

Part of what has aggravated critics about Reed is his unspoken personal campaign to canonize himself as a literary intellect. His best music, the guttural rock, prevails over his attempts to fashion himself an urban hipster poet focused on shining a light on his lyrics or photographs while at the same time collaborating with nouveau theatre artists like director Robert Wilson. What other than self-serving grandiosity would prompt him to rewrite Poe himself? Many times on “The Raven,” Reed updates Poe as a leather-clad rocker, dousing the writer’s prose with modern day epithets until it sounds like bad poetry slam spew.

The album was hatched from “POE-try,” a mixed media theatre collaboration with Wilson in 2001, and Halloween Poe tributes staged by Hal Wilner, who also co-produces the record. Wilner is a spoken word producer who worked on recordings with several of the Beat poets. His handiwork is what makes this listening so enjoyable. Only singing on 13 of the 47 songs, Reed is upstaged by a troupe of actors, together creating a collage of Poe’s poems and stories.

The effect is not designed to be an academic re-telling of Poe. Instead, working with excerpts and Reed’s rewrites, Wilner puts together more a sensory interpretation of Poe’s obsessions. The sparse production, Reed’s backdrop of distorted guitars and electronics, and mixture of overlapping voices, all have a fantastical effect that’s ratcheted high with dramatic tension. Upstaging everyone is Willem Dafoe who sounds like he was born to interpret the terror in Poe’s words. He wraps himself tight as the stricken neurotic in “The Fall of the House of Usher” as well as perfectly snarling as the calculating murderer in “The Cask” (adopted from the story “The Cask of Amontillado”).

Reed’s original songs slot in-between to compliment the action. Some feature Poe characters and others just a comparable mood. When Reed goes for cute — lounge lizard schmaltz in the guise of actor Steve Buscemi on “Broadway Song” — the whole project ends up smug and self-aware. Out of place is the singularly-named male singer named Antony who performs a cloyingly fey cover of “Perfect day” (lifted from “Transformer”) and Kate and Anna McGarrigle who provide precious choral singing on “Balloon.”

The album peaks when Reed’s primal rock riffing digs into the guttural depth of Poe’s words. “Hop Frog” features the first collaboration between Reed and David Bowie in 30 years and it is a two-minute rip-this-joint introduction to the story “Hop Frog or the Chained Ourang-Outans.” Detailing the story “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Reed joins vocal group The Blind Boys of Alabama who turn the story’s doom into a gospel spiritual.

The battle with death is spread over these two discs. Despite its occasional indulgences, “The Raven” is an engrossing portrayal of the mental chaos that happens when the last sparks of life are left flickering. “I hate that I have air to breathe/I’d like to leave this body and be free,” Reed sings late into the album’s second hour. His singing — whether growling on the rocker “Blind Rage” or speaking directly on “Who Am I?” — is cracked but fierce, just hanging on a thread but fully engaged until the very end.

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