His best album by a fair margin.
Yes, Mr. Christgau, some of the lyrics are dumb. But frankly, I’ll take the self-knowing stupidity made even sillier after being shuffled into rhyming couplets (a few samples: “You hit me with a flower / You do it every hour,” “You want me to hit you with a stick / But all I’ve got is a guitar pick,” “Because you know what they say about honey bears / When you shave off all their baby hair / You’ve got a hairy-minded pink bare bear”) over the humourless Berlin any day of the week. But those are just a small percentage of the album anyway (all of those examples are taken from the first two songs alone); Lou Reed’s still drawing on the same lyrical well as the songs he wrote for the Velvet Underground, but that counterculture to the sunny optimism of the 60s is even more fitting now that we’re in the 70s. Further, after exhausting most of what was left in the VU vaults for his debut, he’s forced to write new songs and new lyrics. So he looks to his new friend David Bowie for inspiration – “We’re coming out / Out of our closets?” Puts a smile on my face every time.
I previously accused David Bowie’s “production” on Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes, recorded and released just months before Transformer. No criticisms this time around on that front, because he (or co-producer Mick Ronson) doesn’t just set up the mics and leave the artist to their devices (well, that’s generalizing a tad…). Whereas I accused the thin sound of Dale Griffin’s drums on the opening song of All the Young Dudes, the basic-but-insistent beat on opener “Vicious“ could resuscitate the dead. And if that doesn’t happen, Lou Reed’s chainsaw guitar punctuating the measures is that guy who – after all hope seems lost – just turns around and punches the dead guy straight in the heart. Beep! Beep! He’s alive! Elsewhere, while Lou Reed makes every song entertaining, the tag-team producers make them enjoyable. But, unlike Lou Reed’s disastrous debut, they don’t bury the man in an avalanche of over-the-top backing vocals and guitar solos meant for progressive rock outlets. They simply direct Thunderthighs, the female backing vocals, to give songs a nice shot of melody: see “I’m So Free” and “Wagon Wheel” for more details; listen especially to how Lou Reed lovably and lazily tries to keep up with them on his “Oooh-hooo-ooh-whoo!” during the chorus of the latter. Meanwhile, Mick Ronson adds a blistering guitar solo for “Vicious,” that seems to only inspire Lou Reed to sing louder over the din, and whereas the thunderous piano essentially powered “Suffragette City,” it’s only here to add extra color to “Hangin’ Round.”
The power of Transformer is in its constant push-pull of emotions. “Walk on the Wild Side,” like the best Lou Reed / Velvet Underground songs, creates a host of characters living in the darker half of New York City, where prostitution and drug (ab)use is the norm, but the “quiet little shuffle and Lou’s gentle ‘doo doo doo’s that almost suggest that there’s nothing bad going on” (Starostin), at least, until the thin violin comes in after the first chorus or the bluesy saxophone comes in during the song’s outro. Meanwhile, the singing and lyrics within “Perfect Day” suggests it’s anything but. There’s the key lyric, “You made me forget myself / I thought I was / Someone else, someone good,” but listen to how he whispers the verses or how strained his voice is, “You just keep me hanging on.” It’s desperation – you get the feeling that if “Perfect Day” is a love song, it’s a song about the memory of someone rather than actually for them. It could also be about drugs, but that doesn’t make it any less sad. The real fuckery is the fact that Sony chose a badly sung version of this for their advertisement of the Playstation 4 – whatever. But the music – Mick Ronson’s strings in the chorus are uplifting, because contrary to what Berlin would have you believe, you can beat depression. You can fight it! Elsewhere, Lou Reed’s lover in “Satellite of Love” seems to be cheating on him with as many people as possible (“I’ve been told that you’ve been bold / With Harry, Mark and John / Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday to Thursday / With Harry, Mark and John”). But the thing is, the song’s climax, featuring David Bowie’s unmistakable backing vocals (a glorious buildup to a falsetto – U2 would essentially do the same trick for “One” just as successfully and completely bomb it for their own cover of “Satellite of Love”) a newly introduced danceability via fingersnaps would have you believe that it’s going to be alright in the end.
Even the album’s lesser-known and oft-criticized songs play on sadness and happiness simulatenously. “New York Telephone Conversation?” Playful little ditty that manages to touch on glam rock’s metrosexuality (“Oh, my, and what shall we wear? / Oh, my, and who really cares?”), city life (“Gossip all of the time / Did you hear who did what to whom, happens all the time”), but it’s the sad ending (“This night will kill me, if I can’t be with you / If I can’t be with you”) where the music stops for Reed’s delivery that suggests that he’s saying it to a dial tone – the person on the receiving end has already hung up on him – because he doesn’t have the balls to actually say it, no matter how drunk he is. And even if you do hate the song, it’s 90 seconds long, so I think you’ll live if you must hear it. “Goodnight Ladies?” Neat little cabaret closer with a lovely tuba and saxophone touch. But, contrary to the title and lyrics, it’s not decadent as glam rock often is – does anyone get the idea that he’s not saying those words to anyone in particular? It’s just wishful thinking that ladies are actually listening – but they’re not, they left the bar after “Walk on the Wild Side.”