Top positive review
Dark, Disturbing and Beautiful
on 18 October 2012
Looking back, it really is mystifying to me as to why the critics panned this 1973 album. I suspect that, following the relatively conventional rock/pop approach Reed adopted for Transformer, they just couldn't appreciate (or understand) such a grandiose orchestral concept as Berlin, even though its principal subject matter remained the hitherto Reed obsessions of drugs, doomed relationships, depression and death. It is, though, interesting to note that Berlin was much more successful in the UK than the US, just reinforcing my no doubt bigoted view that we Brits have more discerning musical tastes! Having said this, this view appears to be contradicted by the fact that Bob Ezrin (who Reed employed in a masterstroke to produce Berlin) had achieved equivalent success (using a similar production approach) with his star performer Alice Cooper across the pond.
One cannot, of course, detract from Reed's overall concept and songs that made up Berlin (even though a number were actually reworked versions of earlier Velvet Underground songs), but, in my mind, Ezrin's touch also pervades the album, from its sense of dynamics to its (at times) lush orchestral sound. Nowhere is this felt more obviously than on songs such as the vibrant Caroline Says I, the ironically lush sounding Oh, Jim (with its superb acoustic conclusion - a version of the Velvet's Oh Gin) and the sombre melodic brilliance and subtle instrumentation featured on The Bed. Production aside, Reed had also assembled a veritable British supergroup for the album, including the powerhouse rhythm section of Jack Bruce on bass and Aynsley Dunbar on drums (who are notably outstanding on - my favourite album track - Men Of Good Fortune, Caroline Says I and How Do You Think It Feels), together with Steve Winwood on keyboards. Reed also employed guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner for the album, who went on to excel on his later (more conventional, but still brilliant) live album Rock 'n' Roll Animal.
Berlin is, though, perhaps best known for the (much covered) superb acoustic ballad Caroline Says II, a devastatingly powerful song in which the heroine (no pun intended) of his 'opera' laments on her tragic lot of drug addiction and physical abuse. This is a song which, for me, stylistically follows his Transformer masterpieces Walk On The Wild Side, Satellite Of Love and Perfect Day, as well as the Velvet's Femme Fatale and Sunday Morning. Surprisingly, perhaps, the album actually ends on a relatively positive note (musically, at least) with the superbly lyrical Sad Song, which is another mega-production number from Mr Ezrin. The only point where Berlin overdoes the theatrics for me is the infamous children crying interlude on the otherwise suitably sombre and poignant The Kids.
As an overall concept, Berlin is a bravely uncompromising depiction of a key social problem and contains much brilliantly vibrant music to boot.