Lou Reed, who will be appearing at the Merriweather Post Pavilion Tuesday, is a great rock 'n' roll singer, but not for the usual reasons. For one thing, he doesn't have much of a voice. With what he himself has described as a "three-note range," Reed's singing voice is cutting and nasal, with a delivery that takes its cues from the cadences and accent of Brooklyn street toughs -- in many ways, one of the most unmusical models imaginable.
In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, he has become a memorable song stylist. His melodies are more often implied than stated, but like Bob Dylan, Reed never gives a sense that his singing is monotonous.
Granted, part of that impression results from his habit of supporting his vocals with strongly melodic guitar lines, an aspect of his writing that has intensified through his collaboration with bassist Fernando Saunders. But the ultimate strength of Lou Reed's singing is his sense of character, his ability to project not only an attitude but a degree of personality that often makes his lyrical perspective seem more real than the actual truth.
Take, for example, the title track from his newest album, "Mistrial" (RCA AFL1-7190). Reed opens the song with the claim "When I was 6, I had my first lady/ When I was 8, my first drink. It's the same sort of mega-macho boast that larded the lyrics to blues classics like "Who Do You Love?" or "Mannish Boy," and Reed's appropriation of the device is by no means new.
But where other rockers would seize upon those lines as an outlet for narcissistic self-aggrandizement, Reed seems almost to shrug his way through the hyperbole, as if such feats were no big deal -- even as he subtly dares the listener to dispute him. Ironically, by underplaying the lyric, Reed brings out its implied menace, so that when he finally spits, "You can call me mister/ Or you can call me sir/ But don't you point your finger at me," it's hard to imagine the listener who would.
Les you lay all the credit with Reed's vocal delivery, it's worth noting that there's an equal amount of aggression in the snarling guitar that grounds the song. Ever since 1982's "The Blue Mask," Reed has relied on arrangements built around the basic chemistry of guitar and bass, at first leaning on the punkish power of Robert Quine's lead guitar but now standing squarely on his own.
Reed's guitar work is very much the equivalent of his vocal style, emphasizing blunt expression over technical proficiency. He's practical enough as a producer to farm parts out when they don't quite fit his ability, as with the slick rhythm lick to "The Original Wrapper," but he's also smart enough to realize that the raw power and simplicity of his own playing often says more than perfection ever could. For instance, "Spit It Out" finds Reed hammering out power chords with garage band brusqueness -- not the slickest way to play it but far more passionate and effective than session man professionalism.
Reed has been working his way around musical limitations for a long time, In fact, one of the most avant-garde aspects of the Velvet Underground, Reed's earliest serious forum, was its unabashed delight in barely controlled noise. Still, as "Another View" (Verve 829 405-1) attests, even the Velvets knew where to draw the line.
A collection of unreleased tracks and alternate takes, "Another View" comes across almost like a sketchbook for the band's ideas, whether through an embryonic gem like the original version of "Rock and Roll," or an experimental construction like "Coney Island Steeplechase." Best of all, there are a few things that don't work, among them an extended jam on "I'm Gonna Move Right In" that suggests the Velvets avoided the blues not out of stylistic considerations, but because they simply couldn't play well enough to hold a shuffle together.
Still, the most instructive insight to be gained from Reed's career is a sense of how much the singer has grown emotionally over the years. It's one thing for Reed to be able to crank out a searing sonic critique like "Video Violence," the first single from "Mistrial"; quite another to hear him offer a heartfelt ballad along the lines of "Tell It to Your Heart."
Which, ultimately, brings us back to that voice, and to Reed's ability to convey character convincingly. In a lot of ways, "Don't Hurt a Woman" is, both musically and lyrically, one of the slightest songs on "Mistrial." But Reed does more than sketch out someone's pitiable apology; there is an undercurrent of self-loathing and fury to Reed's delivery that makes the performance riveting.
In short, Lou Reed takes a couple of verses and a chorus and breathes enough life into them to create a recognizable human situation. And if that isn't the essence of great rock singing, what is?