- by Rich Morris Release Date: Label:
Amongst the many and deserved tributes to Lou Reed written after his death last year, one thing which was never mentioned was that the great man’s music actually got more experimental in his autumn years. This is probably because Reed had reinvented himself so successfully in the 80s and 90s as a scowling, no-nonsense elder-statesman of rock; a literary-minded, socially-conscious but very much average Joe just rockin’ out in denim and leather with no fuss or frills.
This rebranding of Reed paid off both critically and commercially. No longer the junkie-faggot outsider with a penchant for smack, feedback and misanthropy, he was now a clean, sober, married linchpin of American rock ‘n’ roll. While this was probably great for Reed, and certainly made for an easily graspable narrative when it came to summing up his life, it was a little boring for those of us who loved the Reed of ‘Venus in Furs’ and ‘Sister Ray’, of Transformer, Berlin, even Metal Machine Music.
That Reed, the arty, fey, leather-boy stick-insect Reed, seemed to largely vanish after 1979’s The Bells, a sprawling synthesis of jazz, art-rock, doo-wop and even disco, one last wallow in the dark stuff before sobriety and straight-laced rock saved Lou’s soul. For the next two decades, Reed stuck to a mainstream sound, with only his collaboration with John Cale, Songs for Drella, occasionally stepping into more abstract territory. He even grew a sodding mullet.
Like his 1970s muckers David Bowie and Iggy Pop, Reed seemed to sense that the only way to survive in the 80s was to play the slick pop game. You can give these old rockers stick for selling out (and many have, myself included), but this reinvention was pure pragmatism on their part, the kind that comes from finally getting sober and realising your bank balance sucks.
And then, in 2003, came The Raven. While far from being a consistently great record (it’s simply too self-indulgent and unfocused), this concept album based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, with guest vocalists including Bowie, Antony Hegarty, Willem Dafoe and Steve Buscemi, contributions from Ornette Coleman and Reed’s wife Laurie Anderson, and even a smattering of programmed beats, served noticed that Easy-Rocking Lou was finally gone.
In 2007, this was followed by Hudson River Wind Meditations, hands-down the most completely ignored of all Reed’s studio albums. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people who count themselves as Lou Reed fans are quite unaware of its existence. That’s something that needs to change, because even if the ambient, free-floating sounds found of Meditations aren’t your cup of green tea, Reed deserves to get the respect he’s due for stepping out of his comfort zone right at the moment when it would have been easiest for him to stick to what he knew best.
As the title implies, the album was inspired by Reed’s devotion to T'ai chi. He created the music as the perfect soundtrack to a workout. However, it’s much more than that, existing not just a profound work of ambient music but also, hopefully, as an indication of Reed’s state of mind towards the end of his life: calm, centred, but still with a hint of darkness running through it.
Like a long-delayed flip-side to Metal Machine Music, Meditations washes gently over the listener, peaceful yet eerie, an evening breeze snaking through tall grass. The first track, ‘Move Your Heart’ pulses eternally like the heartbeat of some great hidden creature, only changing and evolving minutely over its near-half-hour running-time. Rather than Iggy or Springsteen, here Reed’s peers are Brian Eno and Aphex Twin.
The album’s longest track, ‘Find Your Note’, is a glacial mixture of low rumbling and crystal-glass-style ringing (I’m guessing both come from Reed manipulating his guitar). Inventive use of echo and production techniques make this more than just a dry exercise in feedback, however.
Instead, it sounds like a love letter to the great experimental works of 60s electronic soundtrack artists, such as Louis and Bebe Barron and Delia Derbyshire. It probably isn’t anything of the sort, of course, but again, that’s a pantheon you wouldn’t have expected Reed to be placed next to.
After this come two shorter tracks. ‘Hudson River Wind’ is just a thumb-nail sketch in comparison to the previous pieces, but I love the sound-world it creates, a mixture of whiplash gale and high-humming machinery. After this, the closing ‘Wind Coda’ ties together all three previous tracks, its rhythmic, harmonic chimes never quite feeling fully settled.
Hudson River Wind Meditations is a lovely, interesting album to spend an afternoon with. It’s the aural equivalent of watching a lake on a cold winter’s day; the surface may be calm and still, but you can sense murky, dangerous undercurrents. For an artist so dedicated to chronicling city life, it’s impressive that Reed could capture nature so well in sound. It’s also wonderful that even towards the end of his recorded output, he found a new aspect to explore in his greatest muse: New York City.
Following Hudson River Wind Meditations, Reed continued in his late-flowering exploration of experimental noise. The Stone: Issue Three, an improvised live collaboration with Laurie Anderson and avant-garde musician John Zorn, slipped out in early 2008, while The Creation of the Universe (also 2008 and also highly recommended) saw Reed and his Metal Machine Trio explore the limits of industrial, droning, psychedelic and ambient sound.
That Reed remained faithful to an album which almost killed his career in the mid-70s, but which has since been reappraised and championed by such influential artists as Thurston Moore, is a testament to the man’s enduring vision. His final studio album, Lulu, a collaboration with Metallica, was thoroughly in keeping with this vision: a relentless, pitiless assault of thrashing noise and intellectual rigor, helmed by a man nearing his 70th birthday.
So while it may be easy to stick to the narrative whereby Lou the depraved idiot-savant becomes Lou the mature, respectable rock musician, we’ll strive to look beyond that. As Lou Reed fans, who owe him so much, we’ll honour his artistic tenacity, his bloody-mindedness, his conviction.
Lou Reed rocked harder than ever in his twilight years. But just once, on one unfairly ignored album, he rocked very, very quietly. And it was awesome.