Lou Reed: Ecstasy

Nearly every assessment of Lou Reed notes that his solo career has never quite measured up to his work in The Velvet Underground. Never mind that any comparison to that group inevitably comes up short, and never mind that Reed's admittedly erratic solo career contains such moments of brilliance as Transformer, Berlin, The Blue Mask, and Legendary Hearts, an embarrassment of riches by anyone's standards. From 1989 through '92—a stretch that included the brilliant New York, Songs For Drella (a touching tribute to Warhol recorded with John Cale), and the masterful elegy Magic And Loss—Reed seemed in the midst of a full-fledged artistic rebirth. Perhaps distracted by the questionable choice to reunite The Velvet Underground, Reed sadly managed only one more studio album in the '90s, the goofy and awkward Set The Twilight Reeling. Ecstasy marks something of a minor improvement, if only because it doesn't include anything as bad as the preaching-to-the-converted Bob Dole attack "Sex With Your Parents (Motherfucker Part II)," while including a song as memorable as the title track. The melancholy "Ecstasy," however, doesn't pop up until the album bearing its name is already three directionless tracks old. Immaculately produced, as always, by Reed and Hal Willner, Ecstasy has a clarity of sound Reed's music and lyrics have come to lack. As uneven an album as Reed has released, it might be easier to take if there had been more of them in the past seven or eight years. Instead, it feels like the latest in a series of anticlimaxes. Its spareness might pass for daring from other artists, but Reed could dispense tracks like the ponderous "Future Farmers Of America," "White Prism," "Modern Dance" ("Maybe I should be in Edinburgh / in a kilt in Edinburgh / doin' a modern dance"), and the patience-testing 18-minute mumble "Like A Possum" in his sleep. Still, just when all seems lost, Ecstasy turns out a track like "Baton Rouge," a wrenchingly focused breakup song—that's Reed's theme this time out, again—or the album-closing liberation ode "Big Sky" and all is forgiven. It is Lou Reed, after all, and he is still brilliant. If only he didn't make that fact so easy to forget sometimes.

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