Don't take it for granted, just how much I love Lou Reed. We're not only talking about the Velvet Underground—I harbor an aberrant for love albums and songs from across his entire oeuvre. I've had transcendent experiences with Metal Machine Music and am strangely obsessed with Songs for Drella.
Now that's out of the way, I have to tell you: deep down, in the very molten core of my being, I believe there is no single record in Lou Reed's solo discography that can compete with John Cale's Fear. Both founding members of VU, Reed and Cale pushed envelopes throughout their entire careers (and each floundered plenty, along the way). Lou Reed's last studio album was a radical re-imagination of a dark, early 20th century German opera… recorded with Metallica.
Looking across Lou's solo career, there is evocative and explosive work. It can be innovative as it is introspective. He can be enthralling, entertaining and downright self indulgent—sometimes all at once. His catalog is littered with indispensable albums: from Transformer to Berlin to New York. And yet…
Fear is primal. Strangely, it's also so stately, so damned English. It's endlessly catchy as it is fierce as it is atmospheric… Speaking of atmosphere, in the credits, ambient-art-rock whiz-kid Brian Eno is cited only as being his own bad self.
On Fear, John Cale captures the menace of breakdown. He's by turns unhinged and plaintive. Along the way, he even manages to include a song bordering on downright silly. The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy is a perfectly British take on Serge Gainsbourg. It's a call and response duet of a cooing coquette, teasing a pitiable, upright man who must, unfortunately take a miss. Lou rarely managed silly. The only time it really worked for him was early in his career. Sally Can't Dance—incidentally, released the same year as Fear—is only the first of his albums to be ruined by misguided levity.
Fear even shreds. Gun has to be one of the most mind-boggling solos to be laid to wax since the Velvet Underground's I Heard Her Call My Name. Apparently Eno ran Phil Manzanera's guitar through a VCS-3 modular synth, making it sound like the tape is melting while he's trying to record it.
As a whole, Reed's varied, experimental career is probably more important and substantive—even more enjoyable—than Cale's; but John will always have Fear over Lou.