Edgar Allan Poe was a man who usually looked on the dark side of life, had more than a few less-than-healthy romantic and sexual obsessions, was known to dabble in dangerous drugs, and was fascinated with the possibilities of the English language, so it's no wonder why Lou Reed regards Poe as a kindred spirit. In his liner notes to the album The Raven, Reed touches on the parallels between their work when he writes, "I have reread and rewritten Poe to ask the same questions again. Who am I? Why am I drawn to do what I should not?...Why do we love what we cannot have? Why do we have a passion for exactly the wrong thing?" Reed's obsession with Poe's work found a creative outlet when visionary theatrical director Robert Wilson commissioned Reed to adapt Poe's works to music for a production called POE-Try, and The Raven collects the material Reed wrote for this project, as well as a number of dramatic interpretations of Poe's work, featuring performances by Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Elizabeth Ashley, Amanda Plummer, and others. The limited-edition two-disc version of The Raven gives a nearly equal balance to words and music; while the single-disc edition is dominated by Reed's songs, the double-disc set features a much greater number of spoken-word pieces, most of which have been filtered through Reed's imagination, with a more intense focus on sex, drugs, and conflict as a result. While the condensed version of The Raven sounds like one of the oddest and most audacious rock albums of recent memory, the complete edition feels more like a lengthy performance piece (albeit a rather unusual one), and while it lacks something in the way of a central narrative, the focus on the letter as well as the spirit of Poe's work seems a great deal clearer here. The pitch of the acting is sometimes a bit sharp (especially Dafoe, who seems to be projecting to the last row of the balcony), but the con brio performances certainly suit the tenor of the material and Poe's writing style. Musically, The Raven is all over the map, leaping from low-key acoustic pieces to full-bore, window-rattling rock & roll, with a number of stops along the way. Reed also touches more than casually on his own past as well, with new recordings of "The Bed" and "Perfect Day" added to the sequence, and for a man not known for his ability to collaborate well, The Raven is jam-packed with guest artists, including David Bowie, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Ornette Coleman, and Laurie Anderson, all of whom are used to their best advantage. The mix of ingredients on The Raven is heady, and the result is more than a little bizarre, but there's no mistaking the fact that Reed's heart and soul are in this music; even the most oddball moments bleed with passion and commitment, whether he's handing the vocal mic over to Buscemi for a faux-lounge number, conjuring up brutal guitar distortion while his band wails behind him, or confronting his fears and desires with just a piano to guide him. Truth to tell, Reed hasn't sounded this committed and engaged on record since Magic and Loss over a decade before; The Raven reaches for more than it can grasp, especially in its two-hours-plus expanded edition, and is dotted with experiments that don't work and ideas that don't connect with their surroundings. But the good stuff is strong enough that anyone who cares about Lou Reed's body of work, or Edgar Allan Poe's literary legacy, ought to give it a careful listen.
The Raven Review
by Mark Deming