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Well crafted but dark, very dark...
on 11 November 2009
I have to say most of the Amazon reviews about this album are just about right. After his masterpiece Songs for Drella, I was really looking forward to this and since the album was about death and bereavement, all the better for inspiring some great music. However there is definitely something missing in this thematically related set of songs. "Dorita" is a very brief guitar effect instrumental which leads us into "What's Good", a competent rocker. "Power and Glory" which follows is fascinating, particularly since it makes use of the characterful contralto voice of Little Jimmy Scott, whose career enjoyed a late blooming thanks to his appearance on this album. This was also the first time since Nico that Reed had so prominently used someone else's voice and he would do so again in later years. "Magician" maintains the dirge like tempo before the very good "Sword of Damocles" wakes things up a bit. "Goodbye Mass" and "Cremation", while technically proficient, just make for a cold and bleak listening experience, although this I suppose is the point. "Dreamin'" however is both beautiful and moving with a very subtle melody and it will strike a chord with anyone who has suffered any sort of bereavement.
"No Change" kicks off the second half but by this time the lyrical references are starting to get a bit obvious and repetitive, but this is quickly followed by the bitter and vitriolic "Warrior King", the best song on the album. We are then treated to "Harry's Circumcision" which is really a short story set to music rather than a song, per se (Much in the fasion of "A Dream" on Songs for Drella"). It is both surreal and humourous and so quintessentially Lou Reed, but I'm not sure you would play it repeatedly. This is then followed by three angry tracks "Gassed and Stoked", a faster reprise of "Power and Glory" and the title track "Magic and Loss". These last three are I think just too personal to make a lot of impact on the listener and melodically are the most difficult to listen to. "Magic and Loss" in particular is just tuneless to me. There is a sense in which Lou Reed doesn't care what we think of this album because it is just something he has to do for himself. It's a bit like watching someone else go through therapy - no doubt worthwhile for them but not exactly a spectator sport. I saw him perform live around the time of release and he simply played every track on this album in the order in which it appears on the album, making no concession to the desires of his fans.
Overall there is much to be admired about this album - particularly "Warrior King", "Dreamin'" and "Sword of Damocles". However, in my view the set is about 3 songs too long and is weighed down by an absence of melody on many tracks and in places lacklustre production. Even the standout tracks could have been more cleverly presented to increase their impact and make the most of some clever riffs and melodies in the background. It seems as if Reed has deliberately left them a little understated, perhaps as a sign of respect.