Lou Reed has always been a controversial character, but this album rates high in his catalog for controversy. It surely contains one the most miserable stories that he ever concocted. Does that make it brilliant, or unbearable?
It is also arguably the best-produced album of his entire catalog. Does that help to make it great or are all the bells and whistles gratuitous excess? There are no clear answers, and I often find myself walking on the edge of both schools of thought. I find myself returning to “Berlin” constantly over the years, though, and I have played this album so often that it is permanently committed to memory, so I must think more highly of it than I’m wont to admit.
The story of “Berlin” is simple but harrowing; Boy meets girl. Girl drinks and cheats on boy unrepentantly. Boy beats girl. Girl takes excessive drugs. State takes girl’s children away. Girl slits her wrists. Listener then slits wrist, too… The fact that Reed sings all of this in his typically droll deadpan delivery only heightens the emotional impact, although Bob Ezrin’s production is worthy of full-blown opera. As a producer, there are very few who work better than Ezrin at organizing sound into effective clusters. This is the man who made Alice Cooper a household name by making that band sound palatable (if you ever heard the band’s first two albums recorded before signing on with Ezrin, you will get a very clear picture of what I‘m talking about), and his production work is among some of the best in the music industry.
In the case of Lou Reed, it can be breathtaking to hear full orchestral accompaniment, blaring horn sections, and potent sound effects that are properly placed. The grandeur of the production sits at distinct odds with the pathetic tale it conveys. It’s a combination that by definition should not work but somehow does. “How Do You Think It Feels” conveys the desperate emotional state of the couple, but the horn chart makes the damn thing sound almost celebratory. In a move that would have made any Alice Cooper fan shiver with delight, you actually hear babies crying and screaming “Mommy!” as state services haul them away. Perhaps the most interesting moment comes at album’s end, when a string section plays a repetitive pattern of 16th notes as Reed repetitively intones the words “sad song”, the album’s greatest understatement. He literally sounds emotionally spent but the strings make it sound as if the heavens are opening above him. Apparently, Ezrin recognized the emotional power of this arrangement, and used it a second time when he produced Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, placing the exact same arrangement under “Comfortably Numb.” Going forward, Reed would write other unique and fascinating theme albums, including “New York” and “Magic and Loss”, but “Berlin” is the monster that keeps calling me back.
Men of Good Fortune
Caroline Says I
How Do You Think It Feels
Caroline Says II
October 1973 - Billboard Charted #98
Bruce Springsteen: The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle
Album #179 - September 1973
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