Review Summary: A haunting release that turns the upbeat rock of Transformer on its head, Berlin is one of Reed's most striking albums.
The thing about Lou Reed is that we automatically associate his creative output with being very anti-intuitively good. In other words, it defies what our natural aesthetic standards to what is beautiful or pleasing or any other inane adjective of the sort. Hell, he hung out with Andy Warhol for a good portion of his career with the Velvet Underground, a band that in itself was the sonic equivalent of an amp that’s feeding back with a droning sound that would lull you to sleep if it didn’t grate at your mind first.
And it’s not like that wasn’t his intent. When he first met Velvet Underground (thusforth referred to as VU) collaborator John Cale, Cale was attracted to Reed’s material because of the unusual way in which Reed tuned his guitar, giving his playing a droning sound that was very much parallel to the avant garde explorations Cale had been doing in Europe just prior. So the two like-minded musicians teamed up and formed a band that would revolutionize rock in a way few bands ever had.
But like any other band with such immense impact and unique experimentation, tensions rose over which direction the band was heading. Reed, being the primary songwriter, generally took control, always attempting to keep the group at a vanguard of rawness, thriving on a sloppy spontaneity, lo-fi recording quality, and noisy dissonance. By the beginning of the 70s, though, Reed found his own situation to be sort of like the clashing of lullaby niceties and racket that categorized his band—pressures to reach a mainstream success seem to grab at him from everywhere, including himself. And after the powerful impact of the VU’s debut album, Reed understood that the music could never be as unapologetically unselfconscious again.
Enter his solo career. From the early 70s right up to the present, Reed has been going strong, releasing album after album of his unique brand of rock. Berlin
itself is a controversial album, switching between the plodding, downbeat darker numbers and an upbeat sense of defeat that pervades most of the songs on the album. However, it is far more melodic and, well, less noisy than the Velvet Underground was, showing Reed to be a superior songwriting talent for pop and rock.
Now, imagine you’re walking into a dark, smoky lounge club. There’s an average three-piece band on the stage: a pianist, an upright bassist and a drummer. You hear the sound of a chattering audience, of a TV on in the background, you remember a birthday party you have just attended. Things are swirling around in your head. But before you slip completely inside your own mind, something captivates you: the plinking piano coming from the stage, with a melancholy melody that begins to transfix you, and suddenly you’re alone in the club. Everything is gone, there is no light but the spotlight fixed right on the pianist. He begins hypnotizing you with his plodding tune, singing sweet and delicate, but with a certain edge that allows you to understand that this pianist is more enigmatic and sincere than the usual art school drop-out that plays at the club on Friday nights. This guy is the art school guy who got kicked out for trying to blow up the school. You can feel that hot spotlight on him, and you can feel the way it’s lifting him up, a man burned out beyond his years.
“Oh baby, this is paradise.”
Such is the beginning of the album. Considered one of Reed’s darker and more unsettling releases (I won’t say disturbing, although it very well could’ve been when it was released in the early 70s), Berlin
is a loose concept album based around the sordid tale of a fallen relationship in the angry grasp of drugs, depression, suicide, and custody battles.
Piano is the most prevalent instrument with Reed often plucking away at the ivories with conviction. Which doesn’t go to say there’s an absence of Reed’s guitar rockin’. This is indeed an instrumentally diverse record, with tenor saxophones, trumpets, mellotron, trombones and more all making their mark on various songs. Most importantly, Reed’s lonely baritone sings with his trademark sing/talk style out above it all.
sees Reed doing what he does best, with horns blowing in the background of Reed’s upbeat vocals. But there’s a forlorn quality to Reed’s voice, a defeated understatement that we didn’t’ see on his previous release. There’s a certain weight to Reed’s words that is undeniably palpable in their emotion. We understand that all is not well in the world of Berlin. Caroline ends with a female choir, a distorted guitar, and some brass and mellotron building up to a huge conclusion.
How Do You Think it Feels
is more in the vein of the title track, with a bass and piano playing in unison and some drum fills before the plodding rhythmic verse comes in, featuring some downtrodden vocals from Reed backed by a distorted guitar. However, it soon transforms with brass and electric guitar interjecting into the vocal melody with intensity. Oh Jim
fades in with a rolling drumbeat and some ominous electronics that forewarn of trouble. Brass again makes a prominent appearance as Reed sings in a mocking tone and the horns swirl around underneath him.
Here we start treading the darkest and most unsettling the waters of the album. Caroline Says II
is Reed at his most raw, with a reverberated, lonely voice over a single acoustic guitar. A piece with ever-shifting dynamics, the song begins picking up with a commanding piano, an understated drumbeat and swells of mellotron as Reed muses about Caroline: “Caroline says/as she gets up off the floor/why is it that you beat me/it isn’t any fun/But she’s not afraid to die/all her friends call her “Alaska”/when she takes speed, they laugh and ask her/What’s in her mind.” A heartbreaking ending sees a saxophone solo give way to powerful mellotron and Reed repeating “It’s so cold in Alaska.” Brilliant.
is another troubling tune, as only Reed knows how to make, about a mother whose children are being taken away. The bridge features the desperate cries of children screaming for their mother with a forlorn flute solo. While Reed has always walked a thin line (after all, look at the lyrics to his only hit, “Walk on the Wild Side”), many thought he stepped over that line with this distressing section. Reed not only crosses the line, he spits on it and keeps going.
He knows how to make a captivating tune. Something about Reed’s melancholy moan over an acoustic guitar is just heartbreaking, alienating, and disconcerting all at the same time. The Bed
is another number heavy on acoustic guitar, lamenting the suicide of an unknown significant other: “This is the place where she laid her head/when she went to bed at night/And this is the place our children were conceived…and this is the place where she cut wrists/that odd and fateful night.” It ends with a harrowing choir and a disturbing, haunting drone. Best song on the album.
ends the album well with a more upbeat and lively arrangement of strings, electric guitar, and drums. The choir continues to back Reed up and the tune builds into an excellent, slightly less devastating ending, injecting the piece with a glimmer of bittersweet, melancholy hope amongst the gloominess.
Reed’s world in Berlin
is not a pretty one—you can expect all the blunt, unapologetic lyrics, the cold, warm, detached, alienating, inviting voice (I know, it’s a paradox), the lonely acoustic guitar, bombastic brass, and swirling mellotron. This may not be Reed at his absolute best, but this album will leave you speechless with its power.