Lou says

The soul of Velvet Underground stares into the Twilight

"From that point of view, we are so infinitesimal and there's just so much to pull on it seems to me, and the one thing you can depend on is change. It's the one constant. Things are always changing. I think records could conceivably be different if they were cut one week later or an hour earlier. They often can take on a different slant. Plus, I think there's universality to so much of it. I would hate to think of them as studies in introspection or narcissism and megalomania carried to some new height. I would like to think that's not what this is all about.

"Look at Van Gogh's 'Self-Portrait.' How much more would you want to know about him from that painting, which is probably the greatest painting in the world? People would probably argue about that, but you understand what I mean. I'm talking about the one where he cut his ear off. Like it says in my song, 'Riptide,' which refers to the last painting he did with the wheat field and the crows, what more would you want to know about him?"

Sixteen years ago, Reed released a record called Growing Up in Public, and it was--God forbid--his most sympathetic and compassionate record. It allowed a peek into the heart behind the hardened arteries and gave a more complete picture of the man behind the blue mask.

"Think it Over," especially, was a lovely, sentimental song written for Sylvia, his wife at the time, and it painted a self-portrait that was as red as it was black. "He woke her with a start to offer her his heart/Once and for all, forever to keep," Reed mumbled. The song was a marriage proposal: "He was asking her to marry him, and to think it over."

Years later, Sylvia and Lou would divorce and Lou would take up with art-rock chanteuse Laurie Anderson, for whom he would write a very similar line in a song called, ironically or appropriately enough, "Trade In": "I've met a woman with a thousand faces/And I want to make her my wife."

At this point, about the only thing we don't know about Lou is what size shoe he wears.

The just-released Set the Twilight Reeling is a perfect Lou Reed record in that it's imperfect in every way: He starts off the record with a deceptive throwaway ("Egg Cream"), swaggers his way through "NYC Man," shuffles his way through "Hookywooky" (in which he fantasizes about killing his lover's old boyfriends by throwing them off the roof during a party), and goes overboard to make his point about the sleazebags in the Republican Party by labeling "Rush Rambo" and Bob Dole as men disgusting enough to literally screw their own parents.

Scratch just an inch under the surface and Set the Twilight Reeling is an incisive, passionate glimpse of the artist who has grown up in public only to find he's still a child--or "a star newly emerging," as he puts it in the title song that closes out the record. It tells of a man still coming to terms with his own sense of being, still searching for identity and using his music to help him take shape. Sometimes the record roars (the magnetic "Riptide"), sometimes it whispers ("Trade In"), but only because it's the sound of a man still searching for his voice after all these years of being listened to but never heard.

"For whatever it's worth to you, I don't constantly write songs and store them up and there's an album and then go back to my files," he says. "I only write them down when I'm making an album, so they're always written around the time the album is made. They're always reflecting that time. They're not picking up pieces from other times.

"I thought of this record more along the lines of a statement, as looking at various things and then proving that statement--beginning, middle, end. I mean, a sequence is supposed to build just like the songs within themselves build , so it's supposed to have--and I hesitate to use the word--a climax.

"It starts off at the beginning with a statement about what it's like to be young, a statement about when I was a young man. It's talking about being a kid. Then the next one ['NYC Man'] talks about being a man in the present, and then 'Finish Line' talks about the finish line, and then you fill in the whole thing. It goes over the whole thing again from the beginning and takes you straight through to takeoff time, but it's based around the idea of change and growth."

Lou Reed is nothing if not the master of change, a bona fide chameleon who has presented himself as would-be folkie, bloated metal god, shaved-head numskull, and grizzled op-ed page contributor. It's hard to imagine he ever had a childhood, just as it's hard to fathom some days how he ever lived through middle age. Yet here he is to chronicle such things with all the passion of the faithful and all the sincerity of a survivor.

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