With The Velvet Underground, singer-songwriter Lou Reed latched onto a level of consistency and innovation that resulted in four incredible albums and enough leftover material that, in 2015, The Complete Matrix Tapes somehow revealed new layers to the band’s genius. But after leaving the band in 1970, Reed went solo and his work became significantly rockier. His 1972 eponymous debut, though mostly consisting of songs Reed had written while still with The Velvets, is ruined by a basic, tiresome production. Its follow-up Transformer was an excellent if flawed take on the glam rock scene that, with some assistance from David Bowie, interjected much-needed new energy and sounds to Reed’s singing and writing.
Transformer is rightfully canonized, but the rest of his ‘70s oeuvre is hit-or-miss, despite fine records like Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle. Berlin and Metal Machine Music lack in listenability what they contain in inventiveness, while Rock and Roll Heart and Sally Can’t Dance show little quality control, even in the lyricism.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Reed actually began to regularly release albums that came somewhat close to living up to his work with the VU. This began in 1982 with The Blue Mask, the first (and best) of a trilogy of albums that deal with domestic life and marriage.
What remains fascinating about The Blue Mask is how little the drama, tragedy, and horror has faded from Reed’s songwriting. While you would think that the influence of the suburbs would fail to produce work as intense as drug tales like “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “White Light/White Heat,” “Underneath the Bottle” manages to conjure up plenty of the same paranoia and terror in its depiction of alcoholism. If “Heroin” finds as much life and joy as sadness in addiction, in the need and even want for junk, “The Heroine” is almost as gripping in its theme of getting off the stuff and trying to become a better person. The ideas present on this record feel realer and more honest than something like Berlin, which dwells on theatrical despair too often to be entirely truthful.
Throughout the album, Reed seems perplexed and distraught by the way everything is changing around him, as well as his hesitance to change with it. He explores these themes more on the later domesticity albums, 1983’s Legendary Hearts and 1984’s New Sensations, which show his growing fascination with his new life. But it’s perhaps best shown on where he finds his nostalgia on The Blue Mask: the regretful sexism of his youth (“Women”) and a presidential assassination (“The Day John Kennedy Died”).
The Blue Mask was Reed’s best solo album upon its release, and it remained his best until 2000’s underrated Ecstasy (in many ways, a late-period update on his early ‘80s records). Beyond the themes and poetry, the music is a major advantage, with Reed’s rhythm guitar colliding with the lead of the brilliant Robert Quine, creating a rich but not overpowering sound that fits the songs. The album sounds fantastic, never falling prey to either the banality or overproduction that plagued much of Reed’s previous work.
Despite his clear hope of settling into his new life, it’s not exactly surprising that the marriage that inspired The Blue Mask, that of Reed and designer Sylvia Morales, didn’t last. Eventually, he managed to find bliss in his partnership with another genius, Laurie Anderson, which lasted for 21 years until his death in 2013. But like so many other incredible artists, Reed managed to adjust to change, finding as much engaging material in married life as he had in the drugs, sex, and violence of “Sister Ray.”