It's sometimes hard for me to think about "Berlin" without conjuring up Mike Myers' Saturday Night Live character, Dieter (the host of "Sprockets"). Like Dieter ("I find your agony delicious"), Reed seeks -- and finds, in abundance -- the beauty in pain and despair on this unforgettable album.
"Berlin" is all about darkness and decadence, though not the kind Lou Reed explored on "Transformer", his previous release. Rather than continuing with that disc's celebration of camp fruitery, "Berlin" takes a major turn onto seriously grim sidestreets littered with broken souls. A conceptual meditation on feelings most of us would rather not acknowledge, "Berlin" is a bitter narrative about the cruelty people can inflict on each other in the supposedly safe confines of a relationship.
The most amazing thing about "Berlin", however, isn't the subject matter, it's the music. Producer Bob Ezrin assembled an array of the era's most talented musicians (including Steve Winwood, Jack Bruce, Aynsley Dunbar and Tony Levin) and embroidered the album with lush, breathtaking string and wind orchestrations. The music and lyrics offset each other in stark contrast, much the same way a German expressionist film utilizes black and white.
Throughout, Reed delivers his trademark off-key vocals with a more pronounced sense of detachment than is usual even for him; on "Berlin" he's not so much an impartial observer, but a willing accomplice to the proceedings who angrily refuses to do anything about the destiny unfolding before him.
"Berlin" has been blasted as the ultimate downer of Reed's career -- quite an accomplishment, given the breadth of his depressive catalogue. Which is fair enough, for the faint of heart. For the rest of us, "Berlin" is a groundbreaking masterpiece.