Who would have thought longtime rocker Lou Reed’s most recent walk on the wild side would be paying homage to an American literary legend?
On his latest solo album, the former Velvet Underground frontman translates his obsession with legendary author Edgar Allan Poe into a musical concept album. The Raven, which originated from a theatrical project commissioned by the Thalia Theatre in Germany, features songs both based on and inspired by Poe’s classic writings. But while Reed attempts to wax poetic by combining Poe’s enduring themes with his classic rock-styled music, the album is ultimately a confusing blend of poetry and mediocre rock ‘n’ roll that will likely appeal to only a very narrow fan base.
The album seldom strays beyond an uninspiring rock format that dilutes much of the poignancy of Poe’s writings. This ineffective style of arrangement is The Raven’s principle weakness. Many tracks like “Change” and “Blind Rage” offer nothing more than stale-sounding guitar passages and tired musical cliches. The addition of more sophisticated arrangements, such as the dissonant and jarring horn section in “Guilty,” do little to make The Raven’s overall sound more harmonious. The songs are also bereft of the dark, mysterious, and emotional qualities normally associated with Poe’s cryptic works.
Reed has never been a good vocalist, which further compounds the album’s problem. His often out-of-key singing and limited range do not possess the urgency or charisma of similarly-voiced contemporaries like Leonard Cohen or Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. “The Broadway Song” features equally lifeless singing by actor Steve Buscemi, whose sole qualification for singing this cocktail lounge-style tune is that he is Steve Buscemi. More inspired singing is thankfully provided by rock icon David Bowie on the energetic but all-too-brief “Hop Frog.” Vocalist Antony also offers hypnotic chanting that carries the haunting “Perfect Day.”
Towards the end of the album’s 21 tracks, the strength of Reed’s compositions begins to overcome the album’s deficiencies. Reed effectively growls through the bluesy “I Wanna Know,” a loose interpretation of “The Pit and the Pendulum” carried by the smooth vocal harmonies of the Blind Boys of Alabama. The jangly acoustic rocker “Who Am I?” is classic Lou Reed and is easily the album’s most effective and passionate piece. And the album’s coda, “Guardian Angel,” tastefully blends melodic guitar and airy flugelhorns to emphasize the spiritual lyrics. “I have a guardian angel/I keep him in my head/and when I’m having nightmares, he shows me dreams instead.”
The Raven also features a number of spoken word passages based on Poe’s works, some of which include subtle string or electronic accompaniment. These performances include Elizabeth Ashley’s reading of “The Valley of Unrest,” a recitation of “Tripitena’s Speech” by Amanda Plummer, and Willem Dafoe’s aggressive interpretation of “The Raven.” While none of these readings are extraordinary, they serve to effectively highlight Poe’s penchant for the dramatic.
But The Raven’s occasional strengths cannot hide the fact that the album is deeply flawed both musically and conceptually. Perhaps scholars of Edgar Allan Poe and diehard Lou Reed fans will find inspiration in the album. But should the average listener rush to buy The Raven at the music store? Quoth the reviewer: nevermore.