Last July, in London's Royal Festival Hall, Lou Reed recorded 15 songs -- some old and some making their appearance here for the first time -- for his just-released live album, "Perfect Night." The man's choices are surprising. His omissions wise. Reed only does one Velvet Underground song, "I'll Be Your Mirror," a work this listener never appreciated, but suddenly heard anew as the first cut on the album. It reveals itself to be a remarkably delicate and beautiful song.
On "Perfect Night," Reed thankfully skips his done-to-death war-horse "Walk on the Wild Side" and sings "Vicious" instead -- with it's paradoxically delightful yet insipid Andy Warhol quote, "Vicious, you hit me with a flower." He also does "Perfect Day" and "Kicks" and "Coney Island Baby." Who'da thought Reed would ever perform these old gems? And his voice sounds so relaxed. This is the first Lou Reed album one could play as background music for a dinner party. Although he sings "Sex With Your Parents," even that song is relatively safe Lou. It only concerns hypothetical incest, while Reed's oeuvre contains harrowing songs about rape, physical mutilation, death by overdose, suicide, child abuse and chemotherapy -- none handled hypothetically. And none sung on this "perfect night."
To call this album "Lou Lite" isn't necessarily a put-down. I'm devoted to Reed's artistry, but on "Perfect Night," Reed is gracefully treading water. But then this is Reed's year for summing up. This live album takes stock of his songwriting career and is the record to buy if you haven't followed him religiously since 1978's "Street Hassle." This week, PBS put Reed's entire career into focus by presenting him as an "American master" with the enjoyable if wart-removing documentary, "Rock and Roll Heart" (directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders). In the fall, Hyperion will publish a lavish volume of Reed's complete lyrics.
I first heard "Perfect Night" without any documentation. "Oh, the band performs so ... delicately," I thought. Then I had a brief interview with Reed. He started raving about the acoustic guitar he plays on "New Sensations." Now, historians may argue who "invented" feedback in the '60s, but certainly the Velvet Underground were pioneers in the field. Yet Reed now has a musical beef with feedback if it's from an acoustic guitar. So his technicians invented something called a "Feedbucker": "This way I could do this entire show without worrying," he says.
Holy cow. Wait a minute. Is the reason "Perfect Night" sounds so delicate because it's all acoustic?
Reed didn't answer. How could anyone not know this? He looked like he wanted to slap this idiot. Although he did admit, "I thought if we say this album is acoustic it's misleading. I don't know how to phrase it."
It certainly would be misleading to call this "Lou Unplugged." I just assumed Reed was playing subdued electric guitar. He doesn't do hootenanny strumming. This is no hoedown. When Reed performs "Kicks" he almost sounds like a relaxed Wes Montgomery. The most exciting cut on "Perfect Night" is "Into the Divine," from the recent theater project he did with Robert Wilson, "Time Rocker," and it's one of the best songs Reed has ever performed, plugged-in or not. When I said this to Reed, his poker face broke and he gave a big moony smile just like a kid. "Really, I'm so happy to hear that."
"Perfect Night" contains two other pieces from "Time Rocker." A Reprise insider says that the label refused to release the cast recording of the theater piece. Will Reed ever cover the entire piece himself? "Those songs were written for other people to sing with different ranges," he explained. "Different genders. The songs weren't written from the point of view of me singing them. And yet there's a real temptation to sing some of them."
Hopefully he'll give in to that temptation, as the original production of "Time Rocker" contains some stirring music that warrants both a cast album and Reed's own handling of the songs.
"Have you ever had rage in your heart?" Reed asks on "Perfect Night." Rage is what Reed inexplicably turns into art so well. Sure, he can do the pretty song. He can even boogie. But Reed's career is about making poetry of the psyche's dark stuff. It's too late for the guy to go Martha Stewart on us now. We welcome a temporary "Perfect Night," but Reed will always be the perfect companion for a proverbial Dark Night of the Soul.