Lou Reed
The Blue Mask

Released 1982 on RCA
Reviewed by Rev Matt, 07/09/2000ce

It is sometime in 1983. The Velvet Underground albums you've copped in the past couple of years have been at the top of the album stack next to the turntable. You've read "Uptight" as well as the mandatory Lester Bangs interviews from the early seventies. A friend asks what you think of "The Blue Mask", the album Lou put out a year or so ago.

The title is vaguely familiar, bringing on associations with other recent Lou Reed albums like "The Bells" and "Growing Up in Public." Studio musicians churning out something between fusion and R&B while Lou mumbles something about being a disco mystic. No thanks.

"It's the best thing he's done since The Velvet Underground."

You go into your standard spiel about why "Loaded" isn't really a Velvets album.

"No, man. I'm talking White Light/White Heat. Really, man, you ought to check it out."

"I will," you promise without really meaning it. You've been duped by that sort of hyperbole before with every mediocre Stones album proclaimed by Jan Wenner's toadies to be the best thing since "Exile". And Lou Reed has been the very definition of a spent force for at least eight years now, his live shows little more than speed raps between saxophone solos. And when was the last time he played a real Lou Reed guitar solo on an album? Not since Metal Machine Music which, you remind yourself, he followed up with "Coney Island Baby." Best album since The Velvets? Sounds like the record company is trying to cash in on all the recent interest in The Velvet Underground by REM fans who probably would tell you that John Cale is the guy who wrote "Cocaine."

But a few weeks later you're at the record store with a bit of cash on a day when none of the albums in the racks inspire you. Then, over by the cut out bin, you spot a black album with "Lou Reed" printed in white caps at the top of the sleeve. It is the album your friend was telling you about. There are some encouraging signs on the sleeve, like the picture of the guitar on the back, the name of ex-Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine on the credits and the dedication of the first song on the album to Delmore Schwartz. It is worth parting with $3.99.

The album opens with some harmonic feedback in both channels before some gentle strumming and the jazz flavored basslines of Fernando Saunders bring forth a mid-tempo ballad. Lou Reed paints a picture of domestic serenity in Warren County, NJ in the home he shares with Sylvia and Delmore's ghost. ("Of the friends who put stones on his grave, he was the first great man that I had ever met.") The song ends with a slow but vintage Reed guitar solo. You imagine "Pale Blue Eyes" might of sounded similar had Lou not kicked Cale out of the band before the third album.

The next song, "Women", pays homage to marriage and women in general. It would have sounded trite had it not been sung by an artist who spent the last decade wearing fishnet stockings on album covers and living with a pre-op transexual. The chorus "I love women" comes across as a blatant declaration of Reed's sexuality and is as unsettling as "We're coming out, out of our closets" was ten years. What is going on here, you wonder.

Lou seems to explain away that whole period of his careers with the next song, "Underneath The Bottle". "What is this?" you think. "ten years of drag queens, leather bars and hustlers and now he comes out with the Sunday morning, 'oh, I was drunk' excuse of every frat brother who ever beer goggled? Give me a break." This is only reinforced with the next song, an even slower blues riff where Lou talks about "carryin' a gun."

But just when you are ready to give up on the album entirely comes a series of fast strummed, feedback laden power chords backed by crashing cymbals. A walking bass loop kicks the song into gear. From deep in the gut Reed belts out lines like "they tied his arms behind his back to teach him how to swim" and "there was war in his body and it caused his brain to holler." Shifting between the third and first person Reed goes places he's previously explored only in guitar solos. The title track is not merely the product of the disturbed psyche that produced "Sister Ray" but the tormented soul itself, laid bare in five minutes. Can you handle it? Oh yeah, this is White Light and then some with the screeching cocacphony that makes you swear that there is a screeching viola tucked away on one of those tracks, laid down by Cale in the middle of the night when Reed was dreaming sweet dreams at his Blairstown farm.

Side two opens with "Average Guy" which at this point in the album comes across as damage control from someone who revealed too much of himself. "You wouldn't know me if you met me face to face." No, we're not buying it Lou.

He goes into "The Heroine" accompanied only by tentative strumming on a guitar. The song explores some of the same emotional territory as "Heroin" without the narcotics.

Then comes waves of fear, a full throttle dose of sheet soaked terror. The same deep throated, gutteral vocals as on "The Blue Mask." Then it hits you. This whole album. Lou is paying homage to John Cale who he so rudely booted from the Velvets back in '68. Look at the song titles: "The Gun", "Waves of Fear." Could this be the closest Lou Reed can get to an apology. Or is this his way of saying, "Yeah Cale, you may have been the only one of us who claimed the Velvets legacy in the past ten years. But that legacy is as much mine as it is yours."

Next Lou explores his disillusionment with the next song, "The Day John Kennedy Died" a narrative of his memory of that day and what it meant to him.

The album comes full circle with "Heavenly Arms", his homage to Sylvia and his recovery.

With this album Lou Reed has recovered more than sobriety, he's regained his artistic integrity as well as his dignity. He's launched the phase of his career which will produce some of the best albums of his career, including a collaboration with Cale. The Berlin Wall will fall and his music will be credited by Havel as inspirational. He will play at the White House. But you don't know any of this yet. The only thing you can do is put the needle back to the title track.

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