Lou Reed Reviews

Read my reviews of solo albums by Lou Reed, who previously led The Velvet Underground:

Albums Lou Reed released in 1972:

Lou Reed (???)

I may have heard this one once or twice (despite the comment below) but never reviewed it. From memory I think it deserves its reputation as sub-Dylan.

Transformer (9/10)

Despite being a rather big fan of Reed, I have still never heard his debut solo album. But I have heard a number of Velvets demos that formed the basis for many of the songs. Listening to these demos there is one utterly unmistakable influence, an influence that was every well hidden with the Velvet Underground, and that is Bob Dylan. Sometimes Reed seems to be aping nearly everything about him, except for the particular lyrical style. My assumption has always been that his debut failed in part because the Dylan-worship of the demos made it to the finished product. I have no idea whether or not that’s true but I like to think so, because it makes Transformer necessary for Reed’s artistic development, rather than the weird anomaly it is.

When people talk about this album, they often use the term “glam makeover” and when you listen to it, it really feels correct. Ronson and Bowie really do makeover Reed in the image of a UK glam rock artist. You can listen to any other Reed album and you will not hear a record like this. That’s a bad thing in some ways, I guess, especially if it’s the first Lou Reed album you ever hear (as it might be the last you ever like).

But I’m not convinced it’s a bad thing. Mick Ronson is a talented musician and a tasteful arranger. He (and Flowers on one song) has found settings that work for these songs, even if they are far from the originals or may not be close enough to the Velvet Underground for your liking.

And I’m not sure Bowie and Ronson’s role as editors can be underestimated. If there’s one thing that has caused the inconsistency in Reed’s solo career it’s his willingness to put bad shit on his albums. Sometimes he even reveled in it. But here only has good songs; among his very, very best sets of songs, actually. And I can’t help but think that David Bowie had something to do with that.

Sure, this record sounds way more like David Bowie and Mick Ronson’s idea of a singer-songwriter than Lou Reed’s. And there’s nothing else like it in Reed’s catalogue. But it’s still a great record. So great, in fact, that I would rank it his second or third best of his entire career.

Read my reviews of albums from 1972.

1973: Berlin (10/10)

This has long been my favourite Lou Reed album, despite or perhaps because of its poor reputation among some people.

Reed and Ezra set out to accomplish something and I think they basically entirely succeeded; this is a legitimate candidate for “The Most Depressing Album of All Time,” at least up until July 1973. Reed’s songs are portraits of romantic and drug-fueled anguish, set in some imagined Berlin which is nothing like the actual place. (That doesn’t matter; maybe it even makes it work better.)

And perhaps better than any other album, Ezrin’s over-the-top arrangements suit Reed’s songs. So many times, Ezrin gets in the way, but here its’ hard to imagine what Reed’s songs would have sounded like if he had performed them with two guitars, bass and drums. It would not have had the same impact at all. (If you ever want to understand where The Wall came from, listening to Berlin will give you a pretty good idea.)

Songwriter and arranger are basically perfectly matched and I have a hard time imagining the world without this record.

If I can say only thing in criticism, I think the album is a bit back-loaded in terms of song quality, but that’a minor quibble.

A unique beast.

Read my reviews of music from 1973.

1974: Sally Can’t Dance (???)

I guess I’ve never made it to this one. Read my reviews of 1974 albums.

Lou Reed albums from 1975:

Metal Machine Music (6/10)

As many people have noted, the most notorious album in rock music history is far less insane now that we have drone [insert subgenre here] music and noise [insert other subgenre here] music. If you listened to much drone or noise music, this will not seem all that shocking. But barely any of it existed in 1975 and the only stuff that did exist was accessible to most people: Reed’s ex-bandmate John Cale had been making drone music (proto drone music?) prior to forming the Velvets with Reed but most of that music had only been heard live, and most of the performances would not be available on record until the 1990s. (And is it as extreme as this? I don’t know, I’ve never heard it.)

Maybe this is a giant “Fuck you” to fans and the industry. Maybe it’s a serious artistic statement. Maybe it’s an elaborate prank to expose posers and snobs as such. It could be all of these things at the same time. It’s one of those works of art that depends as much on what the listener brings to it: if you are not familiar with drone or noise music it will sound unlistenable. (If you heard it in 1975 it probably sounded unlistenable.) But if you have heard anything inspired by this or by the Theatre of Eternal Music/Dream Syndicate (and like that stuff) then you likely find it listenable.

And what cannot be denied is that it is art.

Is it good art, though? I’m really not sure. There is a lot going on if you can pay attention. As others have noticed, there isn’t a lot of dynamic range but there is a lot movement. And there’s a lot of movement especially compared to, say, things like drone metal, where a chord is allowed to ring out for seemingly forever. Not so here.

This is not something I will ever put on for fun. But it did make me think. And it feels like it cannot be ignored, especially given how much drone/noise music has come out in the 45 years since.

Coney Island Baby (???)

It’s so strange to me that I have no review or even a rating. The title track is perhaps my favourite Lou Reed song and I’ve heard the rest of the album at some point. But I guess I never gave it my three listens or didn’t since I started writing reviews consistently. So all I can really say is the title track is a masterpiece but apparently the rest of the album wasn’t appealing enough to me to listen to it since I first did way back in the mists of time.

Read my reviews of albums released in 1975.

1976: Rock and Roll Heart (???)

Read released a lot of albums and a number of them were poorly reviewed so I have not listened to anywhere near half of them. Read my reviews of music from 1976.

1978: Street Hassle (???)

This one is apparently good but somehow wasn’t on my list. Read my reviews of 1978 albums.

1979: The Bells (???)

Read my reviews of albums released in 1979.

1980: Growing Up in Public (???)

Read my reviews of music from 1980.

1982: The Blue Mask (7/10)

Reed abandons art and pretension (for the most part) for a series of earnest and honest songs about ageing, settling down, his feelings and the odd more obscure song.

Its directness is refreshing, if at least a little jarring, and presages much of his later work (that I’ve heard). As with a number of his later albums, I find him also emphasizing prose verses more and more than he did in the ’70s. This is both a good thing (it’s relatively unique) and, sometimes a bad thing (sometimes it feels at odds with the music).

The music itself vacillates from pretty easy going rock music to some relatively extreme feedback. The great Robert Quine is here and is sometimes his incredible self (though on the quieter numbers his presence is less obvious).

I liked the arty Lou Reed so, for me, his non-arty albums have to have really strong songs. The only one of those that really does it for me so far is New York. Many of the songs here are good, but the set as a whole isn’t of that quality.

Read my reviews of 1982 albums.

1983: Legendary Hearts (???)

Read my reviews of albums released in 1983.

1984: New Sensations (6/10)

The ’80s were a bad time for so many musicians, so many people got talked into making their records sound “contemporary” which rendered those records horribly dated to later audiences. I don’t think I ever imagined Lou Reed would be one of those musicians and certainly none of his other ’80s work that I’ve heard really lets on all that much that it was recorded in the ’80s, though it does here and there. But this record, this is an ’80s record.

Sometimes producing Reed to shit works – two of my favourite Reed records (Transformer and Berlin) are arguably produced in ways that shouldn’t suit Reed or his songs. But though both of those records arguably sound very ’70s, they aren’t dated by their elaborate arrangements quite so much as this record is. I’d also argue their arrangements are more tasteful and make more sense, but I recognize that this is a personal preference thing – I prefer glam rock to whatever this sound is.

It’s a decent set of songs for Reed. They’re pretty consistent, though I don’t think any of them quite rank among his very best. On the other I’m not sure there are any here among his worst either, so that parts good.

Reed’s music, though, is dressed up, with a gospel choir (I know!), with brass sections (not a first for him but featuring some players known for schmaltz), with ’80s music cliches like electric violins and production that makes traditional instruments sound electronic. (The effects on Reed’s guitar even sound ’80s at times!) This leads to an incongruity, as you might imagine, where we have Lou Reed speak-singing over a very slick backdrop.

I can’t pan this – the songs are strong enough that it’s okay. But it really isn’t something I enjoy listening to, and it’s just another reminder that sounding contemporary isn’t everything.

Read my reviews of music from 1984.

1986: Mistrial (???)

Read my reviews of 1986 albums.

1989: New York (8/10)

Lou Reed has so many albums where there are some good songs, some mediocre songs, and some songs where you feel like he didn’t even try. Then he has records where you listen to the songs and you think, in trying too hard, he kind of ruined some of them. Then you listen to some of his records and there are no songs. (Well, one of them anyway.) It is extremely rare, I find, that there’s an album where nearly all of the songs are good (for him). I know of only a few. This is one of them.

It is also his most topical set of lyrics perhaps ever. This is a pretty big left turn, as far as I can tell. And it mostly works. There are a few songs which I get confused as to his meaning (or wonder if he doesn’t quite know what he means) but, wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt, I wonder if there isn’t some craft or intention behind this. He was, after all, quite thoughtful at times and, at other times, perfectly willing to live in contradiction.

The music is conventional rock and roll. Occasionally Reed or Rathke elevate it a little bit, but this record could definitely use some Robert Quine, who had been fired at this point. Still, I like these melodies and performances enough to focus on the lyrics, the reason we usually listen to singer-songwriters without strong singing voices.

This may not be his best set of lyrics but it is among his most consistently strong track by track, and an interesting window into a different side of one of America’s great singer-songwriters.

Against all odds, my #2 album of 1989. Read my reviews of albums released in 1989.

1990: Songs for Drella (7/10) with John Cale

I’m not sure why but I find Lou Reed’s memorial lyrics way too explicit for my tastes. He’s so specific that it removes the universal appeal. I don’t normally have a problem with specificity in and of itself, and with Reed’s other lyrics but, for some reason, when it comes to death, that’s how I feel. (I am thinking of Magic and Loss specifically.)

And that was my initial impression here, too. Reed and Cale are extremely specific about who they are writing about. That’s the point, of course, but it also makes it hard for me to listen to this album as, like, a requiem. The advantage of something like a requiem, or some elegies, is they can be about the listener’s loss, too. This is about Reed and Cale’s loss and, to a lesser extent the art world’s and society’s. And so there’s a hurdle here for me, because I feel like if these songs were a little less specific, I could lose myself in imagining they were about the life and death of someone a little less unique, a little more accessible to someone who’s never met Warhol.

But the songs are wearing me down. The melodies are strong and are slowly making me either like the lyrics or not care about the lyrics. (And sometimes I really don’t love Reed’s lyrics here, as much as I generally like him as a lyricist. The few I can identify as Cale’s I like more. Which is not something I would have expected as I prefer Reed as a songwriter in general.)

But it’s really the strange arrangements that sell me. Recording without drums and bass is relatively rare for Reed – compare the sound of this record to New York for example – and it suits him. And Cale has always been the better arranger. His ideas are way less conventional and their united approach here gives this record a sound fairly unique in their catalogues. Sure, the keyboards reek of the era at times, but everything is sparse even when there are overdubs (though there are few). The sparseness really helps with the elegiac feel of the record and I think I would have struggled with this like I struggle with Magic and Loss were it not for how unique these arrangements are.

Read my reviews of music from 1990.

1992: Magic and Loss (6/10)

Reed’s attempt to combine his concept album about the wonder of the world (specifically magic) with an extended eulogy for two of his recently deceased friends is a noble effort. But I’m not sure it’s a success.

It may seem like an odd thing to say, but sometimes he is too obvious here. An artist expressing his emotions in lyrics is usually a good thing, but here it feels like he is so obvious about what he is feeling that there is less room for us to empathize with him; he’s so specific he often neglects the universal. Death remains a mystery to us on an emotional level, even if there is no rational mystery to it any more, and the record fails to connect with the part of us that still marvels at the wonder of life and death. This is a problem for a record about the wonder of existence and life and death. I never thought I’d be criticizing a songwriter I like as much as I like Reed for being too clear in his lyrics but they do make the lyrics seem rather mundane.

Though I am sure this record helped him cope with the loss of his friends, I’m not sure it would help me cope with the loss of someone I loved. Still, I appreciate the attempt and some of it works much better than other parts.

Read my reviews of 1992 albums.

1996: Set the Twilight Reeling (???)

Read my reviews of albums released in 1996.

2000: Ecstasy (???)

Read my reviews of music from 2000.

2003: The Raven (???)

Read my reviews of 2003 albums.

2007: Hudson River Wind Meditations (???)

Read my reviews of albums released in 2007.

2011: Lulu (???) with Metallica

I believe I have only listened to this once, so not enough to meet my own threshold for writing a review.

But, if memory serves, I was utterly baffled by the idea it’s one of the worst albums of all time. It struck me as weird and unlikely to please fans of Metallica but also, just mediocre. (I tend to have “high” standards for bad art.)

Read my reviews of albums from 2011.