It sounds uncharitable to say that an album that deals directly and sometimes bravely with the loss of loved ones just isn’t poignant enough. It takes guts, after all, to fill a record with material about watching friends die, about sitting still in the numbing silence they leave behind, about missing the chance to say goodbye. You’d expect an extraordinary rock songwriter like Lou Reed to mine that vein more eloquently than anyone, opening his wounds so wide we could almost stick our fingers into them. But his new album, Magic and Loss, seems more like an exercise in aesthetics than a cry from the heart. It’s a mechanical butterfly, albeit a sometimes lovely one, that flutters its wings to the beat of Reed’s blues.
The songs on Magic and Loss (written in response to the deaths of two people who were dear to Reed, one an unnamed personal friend, the other legendary songwriter Doc Pomus), seem to be offered in the spirit of ”Hello It’s Me,” from the 1990 Reed/John Cale collaboration Songs for Drella. There, Reed’s words, artful in their simplicity (”I wish I paid more attention when they laughed at you”) spoke volumes about his feelings for his onetime patron and mentor Andy Warhol. But the lyrics on Magic and Loss teeter toward platitudes.
Sometimes Reed’s vocals can carry the weight. When, on ”Sword of Damocles — Externally,” he sings, ”From over here though things don’t seem fair/But there are things that we can’t know,” his irascible, weather-beaten voice — like an old wooden fence that lets cracks of sunlight through its warped planks — tells us far more than those words do. Both irritated and befuddled by the mystery of it all, he sounds as if he knows that a bemused grunt and a shrug of the shoulders might be as good a response as a song.
But while Reed can salvage the occasional tepid lyric, the overall sound of Magic and Loss is harder to repair. The sparse arrangements favor acoustic guitars over electric, with little fuzz. The record’s sound is too tidy for a record about loss; even Reed’s guitar is largely restrained and yielding, almost as if he’s afraid of offending the gods.
He does occasionally jerk their chain. The too-brief instrumental opener, ”Dorita — The Spirit,” is a majestic, psychedelic clarion call of electric strings. And the guitar buzz on ”Gassed and Stoked” sounds positively life-affirming.
Overall, though, the sound of Magic and Loss just seems to quiver too timidly in the shadow of its subject matter. On the title track Reed explains what it’s like to ”pass through the fire.” There have been times — most notably on 1978’s Street Hassle, a record on which he confronted the terrifying face of his own mortality — when he yanked us through the fire with him, ultimately pulling us, blinking and sputtering, into fresh air. If that’s a burning hoop Reed can’t jump through this time, we’ll just have to understand. B-