Friday, 6 July 2018

Lou Reed - Berlin (1973)

  

Released July 1973

Recorded in London and New York City

This album was completely critically panned upon its release in mid-1973. Reed’s previous album, “Transformer”, although distinctly demi-monde in its subject matter and characters had a real glam rock verve to it, under the influence of producers David Bowie and Mick Ronson. It was probably Reed’s most accessible solo album. “Berlin” was anything but that. It was, shall we say, a difficult listen. A concept album of sorts, covering the tragic end of a relationship between two characters, Caroline and Jim. Their marriage descends into depression, spousal violence, drug abuse, promiscuity, prostitution and eventually suicide. Not really ideal subject matter for a best-seller. Not that Reed cared. He would release what he wanted to release. He had a chance to build on the camped-up fun of the previous album and decided to make one of the most depressing albums of all time.

Musically, it is impressively delivered - atmospheric and at times captivating. Cream bass legend Jack Bruce and recent Bowie drummer Aynsley Dunbar are part of the session band used. Reed’s semi-mumbled, often laconic drawl seems to be perfect for this material. It is, as is pretty clear, not the easiest of listens, taken as a bleak, depressing whole, but there are highlights and, certainly, the album has now been totally re-assessed in later years and many now consider it a work of genius.

TRACK LISTING

1. Berlin
2. Lady Day
3. How Do You Think It Feels
4. Men Of Good Fortune
5. Caroline Says 1
6. Oh Jim
7. Caroline Says II
8. The Kids
9. The Bed
10. Sad Song

The brooding, mournful title track sets the scene for what is to come perfectly, with, initially some background chatter similar to that which opened Roxy Music’s debut album, but instead of bursting into life as that one does, it delves deep into bleak piano-driven soundscapes. “Lady Day” is a powerful and soulful number somewhat distanced from the rest of the album’s material in ambience. It has an appealing hook and a solid vocal. It wouldn’t have been out of place on the previous album, and can be listened to in isolation from the rest of the album as a stand alone regular rock song. The same can be said for the staccato, quirky “How Do You Think It Feels”. The drums on this track sound just immense, as does the blistering electric guitar solo. Both these songs often appear on “Best of Lou Reed” playlists/compilations without depressing their listeners.

“Men Of Good Fortune” has a simply beautiful bass/piano  backing to it and it bursts into to powerhouse drum passage and the music soars majestically around Reed’s sad, plaintive vocal. An underrated great song from the album. The sound on the remastered version is superb, by the way. “Caroline Says 1” is also an excellent riffy, potent and vividly orchestrated song. At times it sounds almost joyful as the flute underpins the vocals, where Jim is moaning about Caroline. Again, taken out of context, it is a pretty fine rock song. The horn-driven, punchy “Oh Jim” has a similar effect when listening to it. In fact, I have just listened to these first six songs and I feel ok! Lyrically, of course, they have their moments, but musically, it packs an enjoyable punch. The second, acoustic part of “Oh Jim” starts to see things sink, though, fast. “Caroline Says II” is just so sad - “why is it that you beat me, it isn’t any fun..”. It really is a tragic song. At the same time it is sensitively delivered and incredibly moving. “You can hit me all you want to, but I don’t love you anymore…”. Ironically, the refrain is very musically uplifting. Despite its harrowing subject matter, I really love this song. I sort of feel bad saying this. Sort of guilty.

Then we get the album’s denouement. Tracks like the heartbreaking, virtually unlistenable “The Kids”, particularly at the end, “The Bed”, which is similarly upsetting and “Sad Song” are a dispiriting bunch of songs to deal with. They end the album and most people would be feeling pretty down by this point. There is a strange sort of cleansing feeling at the end of it all, however. “Sad Song” has a bizarrely stirring, almost cathartic effect. Listening to it again, I had forgotten how musically perfect it is and how great it sounds. It is like watching a disturbing film, you can acknowledge the atmosphere and the points it has to make. It is a work of genius? Actually, maybe it is.

B

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