Berlin #1, The Blue Mask #2

You almost can’t help but look at Berlin and The Blue Mask as opposite sides of the same coin. The album cover of The Blue Mask is exactly that, a mask-like image of Lou Reed, in blue. It’s a blue version of the iconic cover of his seminal album Transformer, but without the vibrant touches of yellow, and certainly without the giddy, party gone out of bounds atmosphere of the songs on it.

Nor is the music on The Blue Mask anything like the orchestrated precision of Berlin. The Blue Mask lacks Berlin’s melodrama and immensity. People aren’t beating each other or trading insults in a drunken haze. The Blue Mask is the narrator from Berlin a decade later, suddenly living in house in the woods, contemplating his good fortune, and trying to avoid a replay of the past.

The Blue Mask was cut by a four piece band playing live and all together at once in the studio, again the opposite of the layered orchestrations of Berlin. There are vocal overdubs and an occasional extra guitar track, but mostly it’s just four guys in a room.

It happened to be exactly the right four guys. Reed on guitar, the late great Robert Quine on guitar, Fernando Saunders on fretless bass, and drummer Doane Perry. This band is like a punk rock Crazy Horse. They listen so damn well to each other. Lou Reed has always had great backing bands, but this one might be the best. The bass is more than just the bottom end; Fernando Saunders adds colors and embellishments that can only come from a fretless. Doane Perry is a marvelous drummer, with a killer feel, a wide range of dynamics and gorgeous sounds. Quine and Reed’s guitars are hard panned left and right, and they weave in and out of each other and the band. Listen to it on headphones and you’re in the room in the middle of the action. It is a stunning recording by Sean Fullan, a top notch engineer who’s now editing video. Go figure. He makes great records.

There’s a contemplative quality to the songs on the album. Reed is always more of a story teller than a poet, but the stories on The Blue Man are almost conversational things you’d discuss around a kitchen table. Well, things you’d discuss with Lou Reed, like there being a ghost in the house, how beautiful women are, some anecdotes about drinking problems, a reminiscence of the shooting of JFK. But then the guy goes to sleep, into a nightmare of withdrawal and violence. The guitars descend to absolute caterwaul above a bed of drums and bass waiting for a human sacrifice. This stuff is as noisy and decadent and jagged as rock can get. But in the end, he wakes up, and realizes he loves his life, and he adores his wife.

His marriage to Cynthia Morales didn’t last, but on The Blue Mask, he’s so in love, and so vulnerable. The final track, Heavenly Arms, features Reed singing at the top of his limited vocal range, singing things that do not suit his voice — long, difficult-to-hold vowels with coloratura: Sylvia! Sylvia! The word stretched out across four measures... It’s like a pleading or a prayer, maybe a bit of both.

After The Blue Mask, something changes. The records following are still smart, still good, but a formula creeps in. The formula is perhaps what Reed discovered on The Blue Mask, himself. While he still sings about characters, he no longer becomes the them. His vocals become more narrative and talked. He starts playing Lou Reed as a character, becoming a musical Tommy Lee Jones or Robin Williams. Both are wonderful performers who eventually began to play a version of themselves, Tommy Lee Jones, the wizened wise man from the west, Robin Williams, the grizzled hard lovable mug with a heart of gold. And after The Blue Mask,Lou Reedthere’s Lou Reed, the prototypical New York asshole who’ll tell you to fuck off with a smile while tossing you a buck for a cup of cawfee. That guy is on every album after.

It’s ironic, and sad, that on The Blue Mask, Lou Reed is finally taking his masks off as he’s simultaneously putting a last one on. But the duration of this album is a magical moment: A man looking into a mirror, and finally liking what he sees.