It's hard to tell what differentiates the two CDs structurally -- they alternate vocals, spoken-word tracks, and instrumentals -- but the first, "Act 1 -- The Play," is ultimately more theatrical, the second more musical. Reed doesn't surface until the fifth track on disc one, "Edgar Allan Poe," an arena rocker in which the pretentious, powerful rock poet name-checks the Poe stories he'll explore. Cuts featuring everyone from Willem Dafoe (who dramatically recites an updated "Raven"), Steve Buscemi, Elizabeth Ashley, Amanda Plummer, and Laurie Anderson follow.
Among the most moving tracks are an update of "Perfect Day," a luminous ballad from Transformer featuring a singer named Antony; and "Who Am I? (Tripitena's Song)," which is driven by one of Reed's best, most vulnerable vocal takes. Sure, parts are trying: "Fire Music" is as strenuous as Metal Machine Music, and "Blind Rage" is enervating. But parts are magnificent, too, like "Burning Embers" and "I Wanna Know (The Pit and the Pendulum)." If nothing else, The Raven testifies to Reed's contract with Sire/Reprise: This probably cost a pretty penny to make, it most likely won't sell despite all the star power, and it's definitively arty. Thank God it's cool, too.