Released: October 1973
Chart Peak: #98
Weeks Charted: 11
This is Lou's answer to all the critics, myself included, who thought that his last outing, Transformer, as criminally dumb and beneath his talents. No hip camping here, no glitter, just a stark and depressing tale (it's a concept record, you see: all the songs are part of a larger story) of an American expatriate and his vicious German speedfreak wife.
It's an incredibly ambitious undertaking, and it's a credit to Lou's peculiar genius that it works, by and large; the songs, most of them anyway, are quite capable of standing on their own apart from the overall scenario, and the cumulative effort is really impressive. Actually, Lou's always been headed in this direction; the third Velvet Underground album, in particular, was sort of novel also, although far more subtly done -- which leads me to this disc's major flaw; it's a bit too obvious. Lou has tried so hard to be honest and direct that he's sacrificed some of the poetry he's capable of. The old Lou Reed, at his best, could suggest things; here, he spells them out a bit too often. But perhaps, given the subject matter, that was the only sensible approach.
Bob Ezrin's production is really magnificent, and for a change Lou is surrounded by sidemen who can keep up with him. Frankly, Jack Bruce and Stevie Winwood haven't had music this good in years, and they play like they know it. Procol Harum's B. J. Wilson, who drums on two cuts, is absolutely superb. I am beginning to think that he's the best there is. It's a pleasure to hear Lou with such passionate playing behind him, especially after the limp noodlings that producers Richard Robinson and David Bowie provided for his last two records.
Berlin may not really rock enough for my taste and it may not possess the ghostly street poetry of the ghostly street poetry of the Velvet's Loaded (which is still, I think, Lou's strongest work), but it is nevertheless a welcome reassurance that Lou is still one of rock's most idiosyncratic and significant talents. It also may finally hip the mass public to that fact, and I couldn't be more pleased.
- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 12/73.
Lou Reed's Berlin is a disaster, taking the listener into a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide. There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them. Reed's only excuse for this kind of performance (which is really performed as much as spoken and shouted over Bob Ezrin's limp production) can only be that his was his last shot at a once-promising career. Goodbye, Lou.
- Stephen Davis, Rolling Stone, 12/20/73.
- Billboard, 1973.
I read where this song cycle about two drug addicts who fall into sadie-mazie in thrillingly decadent Berlin is a... what was that? artistic accomplishment, even if you don't like it much. Well, the category is real enough -- it describes a lot of Ornette Coleman and even some Randy Newman, not to mention a whole lot of books -- but in this case it happens to be horseshit. The story is lousy -- if something similar was coughed up by some avant-garde asshole like, oh, Alfred Chester (arcane reference for all you rock folk who think you're cool cos you read half of Nova Express) everyone would be too bored to puke at it. The music is only competent -- even Bob Ezrin can't manufacture a distance between the washed-up characters and their washed-out creator when the creator is actually singing. Also, what is this water-boy business? Is that a Buddhist cop? Gunga Din? Will Lou lick the bloomin' boots of 'im that's got it? C
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Trying to use self-parody to sell a much watered down Velvet Underground philosophy to the burgeoning glam rock masses, Reed turned to American producer Bob Ezrin and Morgan Studios in London for this, his definitive statement on masochism and self destruction. The problem one suspects is that too many critics and fans took Reed's posturing at face value. The musicians' roster is ever more impressive, with the Brecker Bros, Jack Bruce, Aynsley Dunbar and Steve Winwood all participating -- though Reed's material is often too thin for even their talents to cover.
The recording stands up fairly well to CD examination though cymbals are often little more than a dead sizzle. The piano introduction to the title track is indeed impressive and lead vocals throughout vividly capture delayed echo effects and all. Songs like "Caroline Says" and "How You You Think It Feels" come up on CD re-enervated and freshened.
- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.
Relations between Bowie and Reed had been strained during the recording of Transformer, so for his third solo album, Reed hired Canadian studio whiz Bob Ezrin. Ezrin and Reed concocted a brilliant album-length concept loosely constructed around the song "Berlin," from Reed's first solo album. Reed, of course, wrote the basic songs (several stemming back to demos recorded but not released by The Velvet Underground), and Ezrin and Allan MacMillan wrote orchestral arrangements for each track. Recording in London, Ezrin assembled a dream band including Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, Aynsley Dunbar, and two relatively unknown guitar heroes, Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, while Reed's writing and singing has never been better. A number of reactionary writers thought that orchestration automatically meant somehow compromising one's authenticity, while others found the level of depression and vitriol in the story more than they wanted to bear. * * *
- Rob Bowman, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Berlin is a jarring song cycle about a modern day Romeo and Juliet -- that is if Romeo were a pusher and Juliet a masochist. Hide the razor blades, but it's among Rood's most fully realized works. * * * *
- Greg Kot, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
After the success of 1972's Transformer, critics and fans were hungry for another slice of catchy, sexually ambiguous glam rock. What Reed served up was a lot harder to swallow.
Berlin was Reed's most brutal work to date. Envisaged as a "movie for the ears," the album chronicles the demise of a relationship between two Americans, Caroline and Jim, living in the divided German city. The songs weave through infidelity ("Caroline Says I"), drug abuse ("How Do You Think It Feels"), and violence ("Caroline Says II"), ending with Caroline's suicide ("The Bed"). Chillingly, Jim refuses to mourn his girlfriend's death, and "Sad Song" closes with the unsettling couplet, "I'm gonna stop wastin' my time/Somebody else would have broken both her arms."
Producer Bob Ezrin crafted the perfect widescreen soundtrack to accompany Reed's script. Ezrin recruited an all-star studio band and carefully layered the ten tracks with lush symphonic sweeps. The result was a glorious slab of orchestral rock, wildly different from the stripped-back sound of Transformer.
The record buying public was not ready for such an ambitiously bleak project. Rolling Stone declared Berlin a "disaster" and the album just scraped into the U.S. Top 10. The album may have been a commercial disaster, but its gloomy atmospheres stirred a new generation of musicians. Less than a decade later, Joy Division's Ian Curtis, with Unknown Pleasures, would be praised for creating the sort of dark imagery that had left Reed critically crucified.
- Theunis Bates, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
Reed's version of prog-rock, a dark narrative about drug damage, domestic violence and family dysfunction decked out in orchestral pomp. It was a commercial flop, famously reviled by critics. Today, its Kayne-style ambition and layered irony, along with the raw, deeply empathetic storytelling of songs like "Caroline Says II" and "The Bed," make it an underdog standout.
- Will Hermes, Rolling Stone, 11/3/16.
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