Following the well received New York and Songs for Drella, Lou Reed had returned to form and expectations were high in 1992. When Magic and Loss came out, dealing primarily with death, it felt like a culmination of a life’s work. The album is quite imposing, with each song having a subtitle as well as a title, eg Cremation – Ashes to Ashes, and with (for the most part) very muted downbeat music.
Despite a rather pompous opening instrumental, Dorita, the album quickly settles into a highly melodic groove, albeit a somewhat dark and gloomy one. What’s Good is as perky as it gets, with Lou musing on cancer and loss. Power and Glory gets more specific, talking about “isotopes introduced into his lungs” and “cancer reduce him to dust” leading into a wonderful chorus owned by a guest appearance from Little Jimmy Scott.
Lou and fellow guitarist Mike Rathke’s guitar playing is very restrained throughout this album, nowhere more so than on the dark plea for escape that is Magician (“I’m afraid that if I go to sleep I’ll never wake, I’ll no longer exist”). Some levity cracks through the darkness, in Goodby Mass he muses “you, you would have made a joke, you would have said something like tomorrow I’m smoke.”
Later, Harry’s Circumcision details a botched attempt at altering one’s own features over a floating melody. There are faster rockier tracks here Warrior King, Gassed and Stoked but these don’t work quite as well, and are at odds with Reed’s almost professorial vocal delivery.
The title track is another dark, muted melody about “passing through the fire to the light” with a real sense of finality about it, and fittingly, it’s the last track. The album is a dark, at times overwhelming, even claustrophobic collection of music. Yet it is also warm and soothing and will resonate with fans of Lou Reed’s music.