Lou Reed's masterpiece of misery is re-released in time for its debut performances.
Helen Groom 2007
Berlin may be a great album, it’s just not an easy one to listen to. It's intensely dark in its lyrical content, charting the doomed relationship of Caroline and Jim following them through drug addiction, domestic violence and suicide. Not the cheeriest of subjects for a concept album.
First released in 1973, it was a commercial failure but became a cult classic. Berlin came hot on the heels of Reed’s glam rock masterpiece Transformer. Anyone expecting a commercial follow-up was non-plussed to say the least. But 30 years after its debut, Reed is now touring the album for the first time, hence the re-issue.
Lou Reed has never been the most melodious of singers, but his gravelly, nasal, mumble-y singing suits the subject matter perfectly. His voice sounds like he has been there, done that, and adds an air of jaded, cynical depression to the tracks.
Who else could carry off lyrics like, ‘Caroline says as she gets up off the floor/You can hit me all you want to, but I don’t love you anymore/ Caroline says while biting her lip/ Life is meant to be more than this, and this is a bum trip’? It’s not exactly Kylie Minogue territory.
But doom and gloom aside, musically Berlin is brave, adventurous and keeps on surprising you.
‘’Caroline Says I’’ is a particularly odd track, sounding generally upbeat. Until you listen to the lyrics, that is. More creepily, ‘’Kids’’, about Caroline’s children being taken away, features producer Bob Ezrin’s children screaming for their mother.
‘’The Bed’’ sounds like a love song, but is instead about Caroline’s suicide. The words are filled with regret and the soft acoustic sounds help you picture her drifting into unconsciousness.
Berlin is definitely a challenge, and is about as far away from pop, or dinner party music as you can get. But thanks to Ezrin’s production it has a rich, lush sound with the string and horn sections, and backing choir (and occasional cracking guitar solo), showcased best on ‘’Sad Song’’.
This was the sound of Lou trying something new, brave and ambitious at a time before he was in thrall to rock ‘n’ roll history. As such it’s stood the test of time and you won’t regret the time you spend listening to it. Just don’t expect to be cheered up…