Forty years after his suburban upbringing in Freeport, Long Island -- an adolescent nightmare that included electric-shock treatments at the age of seventeen -- Lou Reed (born Louis Butch Firbank) still has plenty to be hacked off about. But with Ecstasy, his first studio album in almost five years, the veteran vein-banger's steady simmer feels tempered with a sense of patience and overwhelming remorse. An aging rocker with back problems and a continuing penchant for simple, effective rhymes (although "I got a hole in my heart the size of a truck/It won't be filled by a one-night fuck," from "Like a Possum," is light-years from both Ernest Noyes Brooking and Dr. Seuss), Reed continues to stockpile songs of primitive distinction, mating urban decay with gallows humor, love and loss with cabaret kink and occasional maggot bondage. His quavering deadpan shtick still enjoys an astounding longevity -- carrot juice be hanged -- and Reed's rabid following remains as strong as Neil Young's or Bob Dylan's. But how many songs about needles and anonymous sex do we really need? It depends entirely upon your pain threshold.
Ecstasy's title cut is great -- like a bossa nova in quicksand, with Lou singing about "a piece of duct tape down my back." It's slow, achingly beautiful, and makes you wish it lasted longer. This time around, Reed's Ecstasy is a rushing, non-raving feeling that comes in forms other than pill. Rather, it's produced in the mind: nature's own beautiful endorphin, fully triggered, perfectly aged, like the elusive satori, or the result of a lifetime of prayer and meditation, or unrelenting pain and confusion. Augmented by horns and cellos, there's no mystery why this tune parlays top billing. It's a guaranteed classic, and reason enough for Reed and friends to get off their butts and tour. (Reed performs June 10 at the Paramount Theatre.) If only the rest of the record were as good. "Turning Time Around" is a definite bright spot, a mid-tempo ballad that defines "love" as not family, not lust, not something named Harry, but simply time itself. Both "Rock Minuet" and "Baton Rouge" utilize paramour Laurie Anderson's gorgeous electric violin -- something Reed should have taken advantage of more often throughout the album -- and again trade rough riffs for more quiet meditation. "Rouge" longs for youth and its innocence -- how the pesky police demand your ID when the car windows are so nice and fogged up. The whopping, eighteen-minute "Like a Possum" explores to the tedious core Reed's two-chord guitar drone; using a homemade gadget called a "death pedal," he somehow gets in touch with his inner marsupial because, you see, "It's possum day/[I] feel like a possum in every way." The transformation leaves rock and roll's surviving animal laureate curiously mumbling half-lidded mantras like "calm as an angel" ad nauseam. But the disc-ending "Big Sky" is nothing short of triumphant, a fantastic closer and proof that this sometime erratic release is worth looking into. Maybe, just maybe, the scabs on Lou's kneecaps always came from praying.
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