For nearly 30 years, Lou Reed has alternated streaks of provocative and inspired albums with unmemorable duds, so after his last studio album, 1996's disappointing SET THE TWILIGHT REELING, Reed seemed due for a good one. And "Paranoia Key of E," ECSTASY's first track, brims with promise by combining an instantly catchy guitar hook, horns, and Reed's patented talking/singing voice in a defense against a lover's accusations of infidelity. It's a great song, but the album can't quite maintain its energy. ECSTASY alternates sparse ballads with crunching rockers for a lengthy 77 minutes, and while it's not as coherent a concept album as Reed's NEW YORK or MAGIC AND LOSS, the lyrics dwell on sexual obsessions and broken relationships, and the perspective is usually unsettling. With their desperate middle-aged lust ("White Prism" and "Like a Possum," which drones for 18 minutes), their casual misogyny ("Mad"), and their excuse making and blame laying ("Tatters"), Reed's libidinous characters challenge the listener to accept them on their terms, which isn't always easy, or swallow them as razor-sharp parodies, products of Reed's always tart humor. But it's hard not to like Reed's guitar playing, and the band's inspired playing counterbalances the narratives' cheap thrills. Due partly to Fernando Saunders's melodic bass, ECSTASY's music hearkens back to Reed's strong early-'80s albums, such as THE BLUE MASK and NEW SENSATIONS. Although horns and strings occasionally add color, the guitar interplay, whether rocking in anger or strumming in frustration, is at the heart of ECSTASY. Reed's characters can be heartless, but ECSTASY's music isn't.