In a way, it makes perfect sense that Lou Reed should release a two-CD concept set based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. There are some natural affinities between the two men: Both are essentially horror writers whose best work casts an unblinking eye on human weakness, vanity, and cruelty, and both are widely considered to be masters of their respective media. In Reed’s case, time has somehow transformed him from a bombed-out, vampiric glam-rocker into a très serious artiste admired by the cultural cognoscenti – especially in recent years, which brought a laudatory PBS special on Reed and a posh coffee-table book of his lyrics (or should we call them poetry?). And anyway, what do you expect him to do at this stage in his career – an album of duets with Nelly, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera?
The Raven grew out of a theatrical work called ”POEtry” that was performed in Europe and New York City in 2000 and 2001. Essentially a two-hour-plus staged reading with music (and a few actual songs), the album features actors Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Amanda Plummer, and Elizabeth Ashley helping to bring Reed’s reimaginings of classic Poe stories to life. While that approach might have worked well on stage, on disc it’s deeply unsatisfying. Part of the problem (which may be corrected on a single-CD version due out soon) is that the ratio of actual songs to spoken-word tone poems is so low. Rockers like ”Edgar Allan Poe” (”These are the stories of Edgar Allan Poe/Not exactly the boy next door,” sings Reed) and ”Blind Rage” are okay Reed songs, but sitting through the rest is torture. By comparison, Reed’s ‘75 sonic assault ”Metal Machine Music” is ear candy.
Occasionally, as on ”Guilty (Song),” which features jazzman Ornette Coleman on alto sax, everything clicks, and you start to respect Reed’s restless experimentalism. But the feeling fades quickly, and you find yourself wanting to turn ”The Raven” off and either go read a Poe collection or listen to ”Sally Can’t Dance” – but definitely not at the same time.