Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’ in Retrospect: A Macabre Masterpiece

The first time I heard Lou Reed’s Berlin, I didn’t notice the distressing nature of the album.  The music was so beautiful that I forgot to listen to the lyrics, which follow the relationship between Caroline and Jim, a prostitute and a drug addict, respectively.  As the album progresses, we watch Jim become controlling and jealous, and eventually, he starts abusing Caroline, eventually leaving her.  Caroline starts off as a carefree spirit, but after Jim leaves her, she begins to engage in more and more promiscuous, reckless behavior, resulting in having her children taken away from her.  Ultimately, Caroline commits suicide; Jim reacts both with relief, and regret at ever engaging with the woman he once referred to as his queen.

Despite the gruesome content covered in this album, it’s my favorite of Lou Reed’s.  So, I was surprised to find that when the album was released, it was widely hated; Rolling Stone called it a “disaster,” even going so far as to claim it would be the end of Reed’s career.  I struggled to understand how that could be the case, when it seemed to me to be the most palatable Reed album to that point. But I had to remember: this album came out in 1973, when there were few, if any, songs about drugs, abuse, and suicide.  Today, the radio commonly plays songs that cover those topics and more, but back then, no matter the beauty of the music, the grisly lyrics were hard to look past.

Imagine you’re a high school student in 1973.  You’re in a record store, and you see Reed’s new album on display.  You’d bought a copy of Transformer that summer, and even though “Walk on the Wild Side” made you blush, you enjoyed it.  You pick up his new release, go home, and get it all set up. You’re expecting to hear another “Perfect Day:”

Just a perfect day

drink sangria in the park

And then later

when it gets dark, we go home

and then BLAM, next thing you know, you’re listening to a song about Caroline killing herself on the same bed where her children were conceived (“The Bed”).  Even listening in 2019, that was a difficult song to digest.

Berlin wasn’t meant to be interpreted as a critique of the content it covered. In fact, it was marketed as “a film for the ear.”  Many of the lyrics read like a movie script. Lou Reed received criticism for glorifying the violent subject matter in the album.  But Reed defended the album, stating that people didn’t get upset reading a play about Othello killing Desdemona; why should they get upset listening to an album about Jim beating up Caroline?

The true genius of this album, which really sold the ambitious “film for the ear” concept, comes from the instrumentation.  It is, in a word, cinematic. Prior to this album, Reed’s interest in music seemed solely based in the lyrics of his songs; little, if any, attention, was paid to the instrumentation.  The Velvet Underground’s whole shtick was the droning nature of their songs (out of tune guitars repeating the same few chords over and over). Berlin, on the other hand, is an orchestral masterpiece, with many songs featuring intricate percussion, arpeggiated piano phrases, or full-out woodwind and brass sections.  The instruments are masterfully integrated into the storyline; for example, in the first song, “Berlin,” the piano part mimics music that would be characteristic of cafés like the setting of the song.  Reed even steps up his vocal technique a notch, using a theatrical effect in songs like “How Do You Think It Feels” and “Sad Song.”

The instrumentation and musical effects make the intention clear: Reed is telling a story, and while it’s ugly, it deserves to be heard in an objective form.  By writing the album as a narrative rather than a criticism of any of the characters, Reed leaves all room for judgement to the audience. Perhaps this room for interpretation, rather than the brutality of the events themselves, is what rattled listeners in 1973.