Lou Reed, ‘The Bells’ (05/79)

To call Lou Reed’s post-Velvet Underground career errat­ic, even tortured, might be to understate the case, but he seemed to make a breakthrough last year—first with the astonishingly lucid Street Hassle, a map of ’70s dead ends drawn with the nerve and detail the decade itself obscured—and then with Take No Prisoners, one of the more bizarre (and entertaining—it’s much more fun than Richard Pryor’s latest) live albums in all of rock and roll. Reed has never been an instinctive artist (concepts are layered upon ironies, and even the sometimes impenetrable murk of Berlin was cogni­tive, like a Ph.D. thesis on the synthesis of Weimar and Nazi culture transformed into the monster it meant to explicate), but never was Reed’s intelligence, the spectacle of a good mind working, so exciting as it was on those two 1978 LPs.

The Bells doesn’t touch them. As if to contradict the title, the sound is crowded and grimy—it seems every instrument has been mixed into the background—and not until the title cut closes out the set is there any sense of reach, of artistic lust. For the first five minutes or so, “The Bells” is a wither­ingly drawn-out prelude, unresolved textures of jazz and rock all but convincing you they’re leading absolutely nowhere; code words (“test tube baby” I’m sure of; “misogyny” I’m not) are mumbled from deep in the pit. When the music finally breaks—“The bells!” Reed moans, “Here… come the bells!”—the sense of mystery any song called “The Bells” ought to offer churns to the surface. With Don Cherry’s trumpet arcing out of the darkness, this is the real death waltz, but it only makes clear how unfocused the rest of the music has been, how aimless. The songs on The Bells (all co-written by Reed with Nils Lofgren or members of the band Reed put together for the LP) make little claim on a listener; good or bad, they’re riffs, undeveloped preludes to whatever Reed is going to do in the future, or leftovers from what he’s already done.

Reed’s voice is strangled, insular: it’s a voice he used on Street Hassle’s “Gimme Some Good Times” and “Dirt,” but which, one cut later, had freed itself to line out the blazing prophecies of “Street Hassle” itself. There’s no such urgent shift here; when Reed’s voice changes it’s to the hokey talked lyric of “City Lights,” irony that’s irritating because it’s no more than that. “Disco Mystic,” “I Wanna Boogie With You,” and “Looking for Love” are perfectly decent—the last includes a hilarious tribute to Dion, as Reed emerges to announce that when you rip open his shirt (Dion ripped open his own shirt, for what that’s worth) you’ll see “Wanderer” on his chest—but they’re minor tunes in search of a center, and a center is just what The Bells denies.

“All Through the Night” is the album’s most off-hand cut, and it might also be the most representative. It opens in a bar as Reed and various male friends dive into what sounds like an interesting conversation (“It was a specter, a veritable specter!”), another Reed gets up on the bandstand and begins to bleat out a version of that great ’70s standby, the all-night-long song. Nobody listens; the conversation goes on, and though you can’t catch much of it, it draws your ear more readily than the singer, who’s getting more desperate, more wrapped up in what he has to say, by the moment. Finally you realize you’ve barely heard the singer, and you wonder what you might have missed.

Virtually all of Take No Prisoners had the same effect, but you can play it for a long time without getting to the end of it; what so many missed was an acrid stand-up comic weaving his way in and out of a drama that was his both to dramatize and deprecate: the unmade film noir of the last 10 years. But “All Through the Night,” like the rest of The Bells, can be understood much too quickly. Which is all right. The decade deserves a fade-out, and sooner or later Reed will offer the next one what it deserves, too.


Village Voice, May 1979


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