Indulge in some stereotypes with me. We have Colombian coffee, Cuban cigars, Japanese
lanterns, Canadian geese, Russian roulette, Greek gods, Portuguese sweet bread, Spanish
fly, the Brazilian bikini wax, and Danish danish... es. Copenhagen's master bakers
quietly but diligently ship confections bearing their country's namesake to coffee shops
and bakeries around the world every morning. But don't let their modesty fool you. Two
of Denmark's larger exports are costume Viking hats and those dirty pens that reveal naked
ladies when you turn them upside down.
I was in Copenhagen for eight hours once and as far as I could tell, the Danes ride free
city bikes and drink beer in street cafes all day. The six-year old girls all looked
punk rock. Grueling winters of short days and long nights drive teens into their basements
where they consume vodka and listen to death metal and industrial music. Sure, that happens
in New Jersey, too, but Lou Reed's Ecstasy hasn't cracked the Top 20 in New Jersey
like it has in Denmark.
Amazon customers who bought Ecstasy also purchased recent releases by aging rock
legends including Patti Smith's Gung Ho, Neil Young's Silver and Gold,
and Marianne Faithfull's Vagabond Ways. I'm assuming that this purchasing demographic
rocked out to Lou's earlier work only to find their shoulders "car dancing" to the
irritating swagger of horns in Huey Lewis and the News' "It's Hip to be Square" several
years later. This progression adequately prepared them for Ecstasy's careful studio
mix of familiar-sounding riff-based rock songs and brass explosions. But before you can
say "adult contemporary," Reed sings, "Not if I wrap myself in nylon/ A piece of duct tape
down my back," pairing his casual and cool vocal execution with lyrics dealing with the
paranoia and masochism which can lurk in a passionate marriage.
While Ecstasy is essentially a concept album about the fantasies and realities of
love and family, it includes as much sex, drugs, and rock n' roll culture as any of Reed's
earlier work. Sadly, the stubborn confidence of his once naive voice has now disappeared.
But at this stage in the game, no one's doubting that Reed has paid his dues on the
wild-side, allowing him to devote more explicit attention to the themes of helplessness
and vulnerability his songs have always touched on. If some of the poetry is lost in
this translation across decades, it's still a richly textured document that adds a few
pages to the biography of a rock legend.
As a huge Velvet Underground fan and a slow learner, I've maintained an unhealthy curiosity
in Reed's recent output, and Ecstasy is certainly an easier listen than any material
Reed wrote in '90s, let alone Moe Tucker's Dogs Under Stress, or John Cale's Walking
on Locusts. But of course, there are a few glaringly weak tracks on the album. I remember
the first time I heard "The Black Angel's Death Song." The recording might have been 15 years
old, but I'd never experienced anything like the demonic seesaws of electric viola feedback.
Cale's screeching bow broke the veneer of disinterest in Reed's cadenced and schizophrenic
lyrical poetry. The old Velvet Underground classic still hasn't lost its odd thrill, but
employing it as a comparison to Ecstasy's "Like a Possum," a similar attempt to pair
a long poem with off-kilter sound collage, pushes "the possum" into the category of "the
However, you don't need any sort of attachment to "The Black Angel's Death Song" to find its
bloated, extended relative unbearable. "Like a Possum" begins: "Good morning, it's Possum Day/
Feel like a possum in every way/ Like a possum/ Possum whiskers, possum face/ Like a Possum."
The song continues through more than a quarter-hour's worth of tragico-absurdist lyrics that Lou
speak-sings over a sloppy pastiche of slightly dissonant electric guitar and slow washes of fuzz
bass, until it somehow makes its way to "Shooting and coming 'til it hurts/ O, holy morning/ Calm
as an angel." Equally cringe-inducing is the rockin' "Future Farmers of America"-- an over-
written piece of commentary on race relations that sounds like Reed's best approximation of a
young Jon Cougar.
If Marianne Faithfull's latest brings her Vagabond Ways to an adult-contemporary audience,
Reed takes his old vagabond ways and places them into that audience's living rooms to mingle with
the lingering fantasies that might be interfering with their troubled marriages. His limited vocal
range, which has always sauntered down the line between singing and speaking, maintains its uncanny
ability to compel you to listen to his stories. It's just that those stories now belong to a 58-year
old. This might explain the cover photo, which doubles as a shot of a man in "ecstasy" and a Bayer
ad. Lou's eyes are closed, his lips are parted, and his head is thrown back while a red laser darts
through his neck. I can't imagine what's going on here. Regardless, the Danes are still listening,
and for a few more rotations, so am I.
-Kristin Sage Rockermann