Songs of the City

  • Artist: Lou Reed (1942-2013)
  • Title: New York
  • Released: 1989
  • Format: CD
  • Genre: Rock
  • Beverage of Choice: Berliner Weisse

Lou Reed was one of those eccentric artists that ‘normal’ people either love or hate. In my case, I believe he was one of the most talented (and tortured) poet/musicians in American history. His career was a roller-coaster with personal lows of addiction and mental illness to highs of critical acclaim (he was a Grammy winner and was nominated for Best Rock Vocal Performance for this album). If you’re interested in learning more, an excellent biography was published in 2017 (Lou Reed: A Life) and it’s well worth checking out for an inside glimpse into the soul of someone who was 100% true to his own vision and never compromised his art and, even so, achieved fame and fortune.

Reed was so strongly associated with his beloved New York City that it’s somewhat surprising that it took him until 1989 to concentrate his talents and poetic vision on this subject. The result is, in my opinion, the most cohesive and consistent set of music that he produced during his lifetime. These are individual stories that are sharply on-point for the time and place with an unaffected and authentic world-weariness balanced by an unforced wit and elegance.

The story subjects are representative of Reed’s worldview (generally somewhat negative and caustic) but delivered with a genuine love for the people in his life. They include but are certainly nowhere near limited to, AIDS, homelessness, child abuse, poverty, politics, gangs, squalor and general NYC grittiness and grime. But somewhere in there is hope, faith and love – hard to believe, I know, but look for those moments in the music and this album will reward you richly. His lyrics, as always, are smart and approachable even as they sometimes drift towards the uncomfortably profane (some would claim blasphemous) and are effective in delivering pictures of worlds that are probably far away from our own experience of life. In the liner notes, Red encouraged the listener to hear the 57-minute album in one sitting, “as though it were a book or a movie” and I encourage you to do this to extract the best from the experience; not once but many times to catch all the nuances and inflection points in the work.

You won’t find the music itself all that challenging; straight-ahead variations on rock structures with a band of two guitars, drums and bass but listen to the way the band swings on songs like “Beginning of a Great Adventure” and works together with an exceptionally high level of talent and understanding of how the music supports the vocals. Reed’s delivery is as scathing and sometimes monotone (even un-musical on occasion) as his other work; one wouldn’t really describe what Reed does as ‘singing’, it’s mostly speaking in tune and rhythm but is very crisp and clear on this album. The two electric guitars (one on each side of the stereo image) complement each other perfectly and Reed’s playing is his strongest on any of his albums (particularly on “Beginning of a Great Adventure“, Busload of Faith” and “Strawman“), absolutely top of his game. The production is crystal clear and OCD-worthy in Reed’s placement of each instrument precisely into the sound-stage with every note coherent and painted with painstaking attention to detail into the overall picture. There is a minimum of gimmickry or production trickery, just masterly musicality with a sprinkling of rock ‘n’ roll genius.

In the current situation in 2020, listening to these songs again seems so appropriate to our times. In 1989 the AIDS epidemic had people living in fear of intimacy and, although we didn’t have to go so far as to enforce ‘self-quarantine’ or ‘social distancing’ , life did change permanently for a lot of folks around the world and many died as a result of the virus. It did seem that for many the party went on regardless (“Halloween Parade“) just as, for some today, disregarding the risk of Coronavirus infection and just carrying on as normal is seen as an affirmation of freedom and individualism.

Reed seems to be a man despairing of human nature, commenting on stupidity and waste; tired of his own hypocrisy and pain but ready to fight on and shine a light on issues that were important to him. The world is poorer for the loss of his genius and I really hope you take an hour and listen to the auditory evidence on ‘New York‘, the music is just so alive and vibrant. Play loud!

Published by Rick Adams

Husband, father, music lover

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