In a preface to The Raven and Other Poems (1845), Edgar Allan Poe boasted of the purity of his artistic ambitions: “With me poetry has been not a purpose, but a passion; and the passions should be held in reverence; they must not-they cannot at will be excited with an eye to the paltry compensations, or the more paltry commendations of mankind.” Forget fame and fortune-poetry is a labor of love.
Flash forward 150 years or so, and here’s Lou Reed issuing a two-CD set called The Raven (Sire/Reprise), an expansion upon his POEtry collaboration with Robert Wilson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a number of years back: “[W]hen given the opportunity to bring [Poe] to life through words and music, I surged towards it like a Rottweiler chasing a bloody bone.” Another labor of love-Rottweiler love!-but will Mr. Reed take a tip from Poe and shrug off the “paltry commendations of man”? I hope so, because this misconceived project won’t please Poe lovers and will leave Lou Reed fans wishing he’d gnawed a different bone.
First, the Poe problem: Mr. Reed has invited actors, including Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Amanda Plummer and Elizabeth Ashley, to give dramatic readings from Poe’s work-but this is rewritten Poe. We’re all postmodern now, so I guess it’s O.K. if, in the middle of Mr. Dafoe’s recitation of “The Raven,” he veers into rap-inflected rant (you got it: “rapping at my chamber door”). But try not to flinch when the black bird disses the speaker’s member: “And the raven sitting lonely / staring sickly at my male sex only [croaks] ‘Pathetic.’” Ditto when Mr. Buscemi-whose voice is more Tarantino than Poe-plays Fortunato in Mr. Reed’s version of “The Cask of Amontillado” and keeps repeating the phrase, “You can go kiss my ass.” (Rhymes with “cask.”)
The hijacking of familiar poems and tales-it happens again and again-is somehow less irritating than the many micro edits that Mr. Reed has made to Poe’s poetry and prose. For example, on the first track of the first CD, we hear Mr. Dafoe recite, over an insidious, unspooling whine, an abridged and altered version of the poem from the middle of the story “Ligeia”-the poem that ends with the famous lines that “the play is the tragedy ‘Man’ / And its hero the Conqueror Worm.” Why, in the last stanza, does Mr. Dafoe replace “all pallid”-which is very Poe -with “haggard”? Or change “quivering form” to “dying form”? Is Mr. Reed’s compulsive fiddling a perverse symptom of his love for Poe (perversity being a Poe trademark Mr. Reed treasures), or just pure ego?
The musical problem is that the album, though it has an “Overture” just like an opera, never achieves any kind of unity. It’s a miscellany loosely linked by its hazy literary theme. Some of the tracks-usually those that involve Mr. Reed’s electronic music-are downright painful, some are dull, a precious few are quite agreeable, and you never know what you’ll get next.
The first real song on the album (you have to wait for it until track five) is a pounding pop love letter, about as nuanced as its title-”Edgar Allan Poe”-and about as typically Lou Reed as anything in his long and wildly varied career. It begins with 20 seconds of brassy, anthemic flourish and then settles into a headlong rush punctuated by the blare of horns and an amusingly absurdist pseudo-rhyme: “These are the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, / Not exactly the boy next-door.” The song sounds a bit like “My Red Joystick” jazzed up to make 19th-century literature palatable to the video-game crowd-and it sure beats Mr. Dafoe’s earnest drone.
Towards the end of the first disc, two Reed oldies-”The Bed” from Berlin (1973) and “Perfect Day” from Transformer (1972)-are thoroughly reworked and now (though perhaps it’s just the power of context) seem positively Poe-ish, especially “Perfect Day,” which a singer named Antony decorates with gender-bending vibrato. The result is appropriately sinister: The refrain “You just keep me hanging on” now conjures the noose.
Antony is by no means the only guest musician: Speaking of androgynes, David Bowie shows up briefly and sounds just like himself on “Hop Frog.” Ornette Coleman blows his alto sax lustily on “Guilty.” Kate and Anna McGarrigle have fun with a ditty about a balloon, set to the tune of “I’m a Little Tea Pot.” The Blind Boys of Alabama fashion a compelling gospel sermon out of selected passages from “Ligeia” and “The Imp of the Perverse”-though for reasons I can’t quite figure, the song, which is backed by a tempestuous organ, is called “I Wanna Know (The Pit and the Pendulum).” Steve Buscemi actually sings-competently-on “Broadway Song”; too bad he’s been asked to play a lounge lizard, the kind of pastiche Tom Waits does so perfectly that it really should be left to him.
Earnest, existential lyrics and swelling violins make mush out of “Who Am I? (Tripitena’s Song),” one of the few tracks without a guest and without Poe sampling. The song brings to mind William Blake dumbed down for the nursery- “Who made the trees? / Who made the sky? / Who made the storms? / Who made heartbreak? / I wonder how much life I can take”-rather than the fiercely odd Edgar Allan Poe, master of cosmic irony.
When Poe didn’t understand something, he made outrageous claims to perfect knowledge. His book-length prose poem, Eureka, begins with this humble statement of purpose: “I design to speak of the Physical, Metaphysical and Mathematical-of the Material and Spiritual Universe: -of its Essence, its Origin, its Creation, its Present Condition and its Destiny.” Watch closely and you’ll catch him winking.
When Mr. Reed doesn’t understand something, he makes hideous screeching and bashing noises and calls it electronic music, as in the interminable two-minute-and-40-second agony called “Fire Music,” which is apparently his response to 9/11.
There’s a one-CD version of The Raven -surely an improvement and just as surely a disappointment. The premise of this kind of project is shaky at best: Take two of your favorite things, mix, enjoy. It works every now and then-coffee and brandy, say. But Lou and Edgar are better off apart.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer .