At age 28 Billy Joel sang, "Only the good die young," an assertion that, three decades later, carries negative implications about the still-living singer's quality. Even Joel's harshest critics and most disillusioned former fans probably don't fantasize about his making that proclamation prophetic, but they might wish he'd disappeared into J.D. Salinger—style hermitage before morphing into a clawless crooner turned classical composer. Joel used to be a contentious lout; "Only the Good Die Young," after all, was the narrator's attempt to deflower a Catholic schoolgirl.

It might be unreasonable to ask a world-famous millionaire to remain bristly well into middle age, but it's possibly a fan's noble duty to ask satiated artists to enjoy their spoils and stop making music. Otherwise, they might end up on MTV using a wrench as a microphone while serenading their model wives with doo-wop treacle. Or, in the case of Elvis Costello and Sting, they might start consorting with opera singers, believing competent participation in a high art form commands more respect than rock excellence.

Co-written by Costello's longtime keyboard cohort Steve Nieve and librettist Muriel Teodori, Welcome to the Voice follows Dionysos (Sting) through his ill-fated courtship of the Opera Singer. Rather than unleashing a Three-Tenors bellow, Sting uses his traditional delivery, saying (in promotional materials) "People hear my voice and say, ‘Hey, that's Sting.' I wouldn't want to change that and suddenly begin to sing like Luciano Pavarotti." Fair enough, although the "Hey, that's Sting" connotation produces chuckles when the Tantric practitioner reveals "The Desire of Dionysos."

Anyway, Sting begins the album by chanting, "Transcendence," with earnest gravity, allowing skeptics predisposed to laugh at some point during the program to release their derisive guffaws without delay. He introduces his character, a steelworker "in the asshole of this planet," amid symphonic flourishes and flute toots. Sting's passionate wooing, less creepy than any of his "Every Breath You Take" promises, nonetheless alarms the Opera Singer, who summons cranky police chief Costello.

Costello regurgitates some of his long-dormant bile, spitting, "Troublemaker," with distaste and going all Footloose on Dionysos ("The noise of all this music in our streets disfigures our good city"). Villain is the right role for an erstwhile angry young man who needs a spark (like condemning that knave Sting to "burning pain") to showcase his improved vocal range in an interesting context.

Both Sting and Costello acquit themselves well during Welcome to the Voice, though both have communicated their characters' driving emotions (scarily intense love and condescending anger respectively) in the ostensibly less dramatic pop arena. Welcome to the Voice also contains riveting instrumental passages, thanks largely to Nieve's minimalist loops and avant-garde guitarist Marc Ribot's contributions.

The same can't be said for Lou Reed's Hudson River Wind Meditations. Reed maintains that 1975's Metal Machine Music was a serious composition rather than a record-company "fuck off," so Hudson River might well be a legitimate "quiet-contemplation" catalyst and not a parody of new-age gullibility.

The first track, nearly 29 minutes in duration, synchronizes three elements: a wind-tunnel whoosh, a dull electronic pulse and a curvilinear melody that sounds like a whale singing a scale. Slight variations in pitch and pace feel as jarring as an irregular heartbeat, which speaks well to this song's spellbinding monotony.

However, it's difficult to imagine "Find Your Note" (31:35) soothing massage recipients or yoga students. All undulating electronic screeches, neon-sign buzzes and low-end plummets, this extended exercise in uneasy listening plays like horror-movie white noise.

Unlike Sting and Costello's dalliances with world music, jazz, opera and classical, Reed's experimental projects don't carry snobby, too-good-for-rock airs. That's mostly because the former artists have cultivated dignified-intellectual personas, while Reed retains his "contrarian asshole" characterization, even when he indulges in pretentious projects (like 2003's Poe homage, The Raven). Sting and Costello dabble with opera for their intellectual and artistic betterment, and, indeed, for that of all society; Reed adapts Poe poems and writes yoga drones because he damn well pleases.

By all accounts, Reed remains cantankerous, and his solo career has been willfully erratic since it began. Hudson River Wind Meditations isn't a soft gesture, a gooey nature-sounds bid for Sharper Image shelves. Rather, it's an album that even its target audience might dismiss as unbearable noise unless they'd been informed in advance that it was intended for them. Hudson River is probably the backdrop Reed, a yoga enthusiast, prefers for his own core-strengthening poses: He's never been especially concerned with how his own preferences might intersect with the proclivities (or expectations) of prospective listeners.

On 2005's No Wow, The Kills — Edie Sedgwick—worshipping orphan heirs to the Velvet Underground's bohemian legacy — sang "Once in a while, you got to burn down your house/Keep your dreaming alive." It's a line that touts metaphorical arson as an antidote to complacency, which could be interpreted (probably correctly in this song's context) as a justification for self-destructive drug use, but also works well as advice for alt-rock elder statesmen who think they've outgrown their calling. If they don't periodically burn back to their roots, they might end up with "We Didn't Start the Fire."

More by Andrew Miller


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