For me, Lou Reed's output in the 1970s is some of his best material, with his very unusual "The Bells" near the peak for that decade. An enigmatic, though thoughtful, foray into jazz-rock experimentation, "The Bells" finds Reed delving further into territory he had been previously exploring with "Rock and Roll Heart" and "Street Hassle".
Unlike those albums, here Reed really lets loose and tries on several different musical personas ranging from progressive jazz to dixieland. His band, with which he co-wrote almost all of the songs, is supplemented by the appearance of noted jazz trumpeter Don Cherry. Cherry and sax player Marty Fogel -- who arranged all of the elaborately layered horn parts -- are particularly outstanding.
Curiously, three tracks ("Stupid Man", "With You", and "City Lights") were co-written with guitarist Nils Lofgren. This association was made possible by Bob Ezrin (producer of Reed's "Berlin" album), who gets a thank you in the album credits. [Three other Reed/Lofgren collaborations made it onto Lofgren's 1979 album entitled "Nils".]
The connecting threads that hold the whole thing together are the lyrics, Reed's most personal, before or since; never has he sounded so vulnerable. On "Stupid Man" and "Families", Reed sings about separation from loved ones by distances both physical and emotional. "Looking for Love" and "I Want to Boogie With You" are naked, yearning declarations, but sadly, the singer is all-too-convinced of his own inability to grasp that which he desires.
The epic title track -- featuring Reed's own favorite lyric -- continues to impress to this day. Sounding like a horrific collision between a 16th century baroque brass ensemble and Ornette Coleman's Prime Time outfit (with a touch of Gothic nightmarishness thrown in for good measure), it defies categorization.