Lou Reed's devastatingly brilliant work with Velvet Underground would be reason enough for lasting esteem. Since then he has recorded a great many solo projects of verying degrees of quality. Last year's "Street Hassle" was a horrowingly good album whose dominant, throbbing bass and drums may have obscured the familiarity of its subject matter. "Street Hassle" is distinct and musically thrilling, though; it and Reed's latest effort, "The Bells" (Arista AR 4229), serve as interesting complements to each other.
Unlike the recurrent "slip away" theme of "Street Hassle's" tripartite title track, "The Bells" is immediately confrontational and direct. This album is about love and reconciliation, and Reed abandons his accustomed corrosive props (dark glasses, heroin, titillating decadence) to sing plaintively of estrangement and family ties. In the opening cut, "Stupid Man," the singer, who's "been living all alone by these still waters," wants only to see his young daughter. The Boogie With You" underscores Reed's desperation with its raw, clawing horn arrangements.
"Looking for Love" amplifies this topic of deprivation. The song begins with some vigorous electric guitar work by Reed; he tears savagely through the lyrics as the composition charges on, cruelly juxtaposing the upbeat melody with his empty-handed longing. "City Lights" stolidly concludes side one with a chunky bass threading through the piece. Reed employs several novel touches here; bright little effects of bells and whistles sparkle while the singer speculates on the possibility of "bringing us together." He finishes uncertainly, but in fact most of "The Bells" not only discusses but achieves various forms of unity. In "Looking for Love," for example, Reed displays a fierce compassion for his characters, however undesirable they may be to others. This should come as no surprise; the songwriter has always been capable of a great compassion: Take, for instance, the wholly sympathetic "Sunday Morning" and "Pale Blue Eyes."
Musically, "The Bells" is dense, complex and sophisticated, multilayered with banks of synthesizers aad horns. This electronic thickness seems ominous and futuristic but it is counter-balanced by the insistent trumpet and saxophones of Don Cherry and Marty Fogel, respectively, as well as some expressive guitar playing by Reed himself. Despite some titles, there's obviously nothing trivial or one-dimensional about any of the songs, not even "Disco Mystic," an impersonal instrumental that grows on the listener. This muddy, bubbling effort is propelled forward by undulating synthesizers and Marty Fogel's saxophone; it provides some necessary relief from Reed's lyrical intensity.
Side two features three long, involved compositions, the meatiest parts of "The Bells." In "All Through the Night" Reed sings against a tape of a seemingly intriguing restaurant conversation among the musicians. The track starts out calmly enough, but we can't hear either party distinctly and both remain just out of the listener's reach. Reed's struggling lyric and delivery are wonderful. First he questions, "Don't you feel so lonely when it's in the afternoon/and you've got to face it/all through the night?" Then as the song progresses, it contracts his frenzled performance with the same, jovial dinner banter. The same night when "the words pour down/and the poetry comes/and the novels get written/and the book is done" gives way to "My friend Sally she got sick/and I'm feeling mighty ill myself/It happens all the time . . . and I'm watching the ceiling fall down on her body . . . and I said Oh Jesus. . . ."
But Reed endures to sing the mournfully repetitive "Families," a son's apologia to and imaginary home-coming dialogue with his parents. This is wrenchingly authentic - the agonized narrator admits "no no no I don't come home much anymore" and implores his father "please please please let's not start this business again." Although "Families" ends ambivalently, the effort of the exchange would seem to accomplish the above-mentioned reconciliation.
The title composition is a whirling, bottomless departure from the album's straightforwardness. Most of it is a melange of voice and instrumental doodlings. Though "The Bells" isn't very appealing in itself, it's interesting because it seems to pry at the lid of the record's ambitions. When Reed at last begins his dirge, he appears to be straining toward some larger intention, as if his first eight songs were merely preludes. The cut is so murky, however, that the listener, at least, gets lost.
"The Bells is a powerfully cogent and authoritative work. The critic Lester Bangs doesn't think "The Bells" refers to "the gay outsider's occasional yearning for the straight life and its conventions," and while I believe that this theme may indeed be among the album's concerns, it's not an important point in the end, because "The Bells" is trenchantly universal. Even as Reed surmounts his alienation, he transcends belonging to any one group. As the album cover photo suggests, we're all reflected in Lou Reed's mirror.