The Essential Lou Reed

by: Lou Reed

If you were given the assignment of compiling an album of the best-of Lou Reed, it wouldn't be inappropriate to ask, "Which Lou Reed?" Reed's done more than his share of musical shape shifting over the decades, and you could assemble compelling albums documenting either the proto-punk who led the Velvet Underground, the glam-centric dandy that recorded Transformer and Sally Can't Dance, the literate but doomstruck scenarist of Berlin and The Raven, the self-reflective poet with guitar on The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts, or the darkly witty social commentator behind New York and Set the Twilight Reeling, which still leaves a several personas to be accounted for. The chief virtue and flaw of The Essential Lou Reed (a repacked version of the 2003 set NYC Man: The Ultimate Lou Reed Collection) is that it was compiled by Reed himself, and in his hands, it's a more ambitious overview than the many greatest-hits packages that have been released to date. It tries to make some sense of his creative wanderlust, but it also gives a somewhat lopsided view of his body of work. While "Walk on the Wild Side" remains Reed's only real hit single, there are plenty of tracks that gained radio and video play that missed the cut, such as "I Love You Suzanne," "Busload of Faith," "No Money Down," and "Rock and Roll Heart," and if you're looking for songs you're likely to recognize, this package runs hot and cold. Also, Reed chose to program this set without regard to chronology, so the first disc begins with a tune from his then-new The Raven, followed by "Sweet Jane" from the Velvet Underground's Loaded, which is only the first of several clumsy segues (as well as unwittingly pointing out how rough Reed's voice sounded on The Raven). But if this set leans to Reed's self-consciously "important" work rather than his most popular, most compilers wouldn't throw in anything from his wildly eccentric 1978 live double Take No Prisoners, let alone "I Wanna Be Black," and Reed knows that the live take of "Kill Your Sons" on 1984's Live in Italy is vastly superior to the studio cut on Sally Can't Dance (though someone else might not fade out the 5:43 track at 4:09). Reed also contributed comments on all the songs for the liner notes, which are sometimes enlightening, though he seems more comfortable discussing remastering than anything else. Simply stated, The Essential Lou Reed is Reed's own summation of his music from 1966 to 2003, and he clearly knows his best work from his throwaways. But he doesn't quite know how to put it together coherently or honor his more accessible side (and he does have one), so the result is a collection that's deep but frustratingly narrow. ~ Mark Deming

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