Neil Young and Lou Reed return -- We review ''Set the Twilight Reeling'' and ''Dead Man''

February 23, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

Neil Young and Lou Reed return

The new albums by Lou Reed and Neil Young both open with the sound of an electric guitar, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Three full decades after their recording debuts (with the Velvet Underground and Buffalo Springfield, respectively), both men continue to derive almost adolescent glee from the howl of a six-string plugged into an amp. Reed’s Set the Twilight Reeling starts with a hint of feedback and then a thick, blaring crunch of a riff — it’s phlegm with voltage. Young, on Dead Man: Music From and Inspired By the Motion Picture, opts for a drone that slowly builds to a simulation of rusty windshield wipers scraping away. The styles are different, but the signal they send out is the same: These two men, one just turned 50 (Young) and the other a few years into that decade, aren’t about to age quietly.

Young and Reed have more in common than a love of feedback. Both are granite-faced legends and proud musical primitivists, and both have earned the respect of the cynical Lollapalooza generation. Both are stubborn ideologues who do what they want, when they want. (Dead Man is one of the inaugural releases on Young’s new independent label.) And both men work hard to avoid nostalgia by releasing new material at regular intervals — and often challenging material at that. That’s clearly the case here: On the latest in his string of annual offerings, Young lets his guitar do all the talking, while the notoriously crusty Reed opens his mouth to, of all things, serenade his sweetie.

The sweetie in question is performance artist Laurie Anderson, and Set the Twilight Reeling is Reed’s Valentine’s Day gift to her. And what do you know: Reed makes for one tender, humble love man, whether confessing his insecurities or intoning ”Just like a bulb screws into a lamp/And we were meant to be.” In the frisky, let’s-get-it-on boogie ”HookyWooky,” Reed goofs on his new-found mellowness by assuring Anderson that he wouldn’t push her ex-lovers off her roof — and then graphically fantasizes about doing so. (Speaking of graphic, the album’s ”Sex With Your Parents [Motherf—er] Part II,” a heavy-handed yet noble anti-Bob Dole rant, should have been relegated to a B side.) With its recurring theme of renewal through middle-aged romance, the record could have been titled Grumpy Old Mensch.

As if to equate emotional directness with musical austerity, Reed sets most of Twilight‘s tunes to skeletal arrangements, often just guitar, bass, and drums. The songs are, by Reed standards, a surprisingly tuneful bunch, so most of the time the spareness doesn’t hurt. Still, other tracks sound like well-recorded demo tapes. The music could use a few more shadings, like the horn section that spices up ”NYC Man.” But given Reed’s irascible persona and his wild-side past, you can’t help but feel for this infamous curmudgeon when he warbles, in that wonderfully lived-in voice, that he wants ”a trade-in/A 14th chance at this life.”

Curiously, Young’s companion album to filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s surreal Western Dead Man recalls Reed’s 1975 all-feedback assault, Metal Machine Music. Where Reed’s work was an intentional headache inducer, Young’s own crack at an all-instrumental guitar record features a gentler, moodier sound. Like Reed, Young achieves a distinctive tone from his guitar, but he isn’t much of an improviser. Generally, his jamming amounts to sawing away at the strings, then breaking into a flurry of craggy notes, and then returning to the throb. Spooky and gnarled, if not all that varied, it’s perfect accompaniment for late-night drives on deserted country roads.

Because Dead Man is a soundtrack, it’s probably unfair to treat it as Young’s latest artistic statement. The musical range of his recent records — from the autumnal folk of Harvest Moon (1992) to the pedal-to-the-metal drive of last year’s collaboration with Pearl Jam, Mirror Ball — reveals what an unstoppable force of nature he is. Dead Man is at best a one- or two-listen footnote to his long and whining career road — especially since it includes numerous snippets of movie dialogue. (Or, in some cases, nearly entire scenes, making for a ”Books on Tape Unplugged” feel.) Just when the music builds a hypnotic head of steam, out trots a ranting Iggy Pop, in his screen role as a transvestite trapper, or star Johnny Depp somberly reciting William Blake. You’ll be lunging for the CD remote control every other track.

It figures, doesn’t it? Young and Reed have made careers of tossing musical curveballs, sometimes for strikes, sometimes not. And that’s okay. Not long ago, it was impossible to imagine rock stars over the age of 40. Now the charts and arenas are crowded with them; most repackage themselves as oldies acts or, like Rod Stewart, remake their acts into Vegas-style revues. Whether by grand design or out of restless boredom, Young and Reed have not only avoided those traps; they’ve stumbled upon what it means to age gracefully in rock & roll. Set the Twilight Reeling: B+; Dead Man: C+

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