A live opus, twenty-five years in the making
The 1970s saw the heyday of the rock opera, with musical opuses by Genesis, Queen and Meat Loaf all vying to out-bombast The Who’s seminal Tommy and Quadrophenia and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar. Lou Reed's contribution to the genre came in 1973 with Berlin, his psychodrama about a drug-addicted couple that mixed the titular German capital’s art-born-of-political-strife with an LES aesthetic—and nearly relegated Reed's post-Velvet Underground solo career to one-hit-wonder status.
Since then, Berlin has slowly gained some critical success, and in 2006, Reed fulfilled his desire to stage the piece by assembling a 30-piece band and 12 singers to perform the album live at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Finally available on CD, it proves a lot more rock than opera. Reed’s sarcastic, cooler-than-thou voice drives an art-rock odyssey that's as quirky and deep and relevant as anything he’s done. “Men of Good Fortune,” with its curly guitar lead and power-chord chorus, sounds like a Weezer song with Sharon Jones singing backup (as she does later, on “Oh Jim,” a Velvet Underground outtake). “Caroline Says, Pt. 2,” an earnest interrogation of a troubled lover, harbors all the intensity and tragedy of a girl in a bathtub with razor-slashed wrists. Guest vocalist Antony Hegarty’s tenor rises out of the water like an ascendant soul. And after the quintessential rock-opera power chorus of the album’s denouement, “Sad Song,” we get three bonus songs: “Rock Minuet” and the Underground classics “Candy Says” and “Sweet Jane.” For Reed fans, music fans and/or art fans, Berlin is a must-listen.