Yes, I won’t deny that New York is one of the better albums in Lou Reed’s solo career, but such a compliment is relative when you realize that Lou Reed’s discography is one of the most haphazard ones for a canonized artist.
I think that a lot of the attention that this got when it was first released has to do with those two ‘c’ words that critics love. Firstly, New York is a concept album, and that’s the sort of thing you have to mention, no matter how half-assed a concept may be – need I remind everyone that Lou Reed has been creating fictional characters to expose the parts of New York no one ever talks about his entire musical career?
To give you a sense of this one’s supposed “concept,” after viewing The Last Temptation of Christ, Lou Reed wrote “Dime Store Mystery” (also a tribute to Andy Warhol, and one of two songs featuring Maureen Tucker on drums; the other is “Last Great American Whale”). Meanwhile, the preceding “Strawman,” has as much to do with the various characters he introduces in the opener as that one – that is to say, not at all – a 6-minute rant wherein Lou Reed rants about whatever he thinks of (love how the intro kind of tells you how boring the rest of its going to be).
Secondly, New York is a comeback album from an artist who had a period of inconsequential material – Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones all enjoyed similar huzzah’s at the time, but its defenders realized overtime that those albums weren’t really that good, just comparatively better than the stuff they were coming back from.
Like Dylan’s Oh Mercy, Lou Reed’s sense of melody has mostly flown out the window (listen to how he “sings” “fly-eee-igh” on “Dirty Blvd.” – yeesh; also the way Reed sings “It’s a different feeling that I have today / Especially when I know you’ve gone away” on “Halloween Parade” sounds suspiciously similar to how he sung a couplet on Transformer – “Make Up,” I believe). For the most part, Lou Reed works around that weakness, doing his typical speak-sing style through most of the album, but because the guitar playing is relatively simple (even to Lou Reed’s own standards; think Blue Mask), there’s a tendency to focus on what he’s saying and over the course of the album, you question if Lou Reed was ever that good of a poet when he wasn’t relying on shock value. Why is “It’s hard to give a shit these days” – a question everyone wonders from time to time – written in fucking Latin (“Romeo Had Juliette”)? Who knows?
It doesn’t help New York’s cause that this thing is Lou Reed’s longest album since Metal Machine Music at almost an hour’s worth. Once you realize that most of these songs follow one of two formulae – the heavy guitar chug of “There Is No Time,” “Busload of Faith,” “Hold On,” “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” and “Strawman” or the light guitar colors of “Endless Cycle,” “Last Great American Whale” and “Xmas in February” – you also realize how limited his self-imposed exile with the two-guitar, bass and drum format was, something that the punchier Blue Mask (or Legendary Hearts or New Sensations) never let show. The backing vocals that elevate the conclusion of “Halloween Parade” were a great idea, certainly, but when they do it again (but better) in the conclusion of “Dirty Blvd.”, you’re left wishing the band had a few more tricks of their sleeve. In retrospect though, the most flat “Dime Store Mystery” stands out, then, thanks to eschewing that set-up via cellos similar to the ones used in “Street Hassle.” Similarly, though “Beginning of a Great Adventure” is a little long and “Sick of You” a throwaway, both are standouts. In the case of the former, it’s the late night lounge jazz from Rob Wasserman’s basslines and the spread-out fingersnaps (also, love the Lou Reed’s prickly solo (my favorite on the album, easily) that’s introduced with “Take it, Lou!”, spoken by Lou Reed, no less). In the case of the latter, it’s because most of New York deals with depression or anger, so to hear some bounce and sass is a welcome reprieve.
All that being said, the first side is the best side Lou Reed’s handed in since Transformer (and a whole 17 years in between those two albums). “Romeo Had Juliette” – recorded in one take and presented as it were – has some delicious guitar bends, and there’s something ridiculously sad about the closing line, “something flickered for a minute and then it vanished and was gone,” as if Juliette’s thighs that Romeo’s holding aren’t real – they’re just memories. The brief fills that drummer Fred Maher sneaks into “Halloween Parade” are frankly his greatest contribution on the whole album – pushing the track forward to its aforementioned satisfying conclusion. The guitar riffs in that song, “Endless Cycle” and “Last Great American Whale” (love the drums that echo the “tidal wave” sentiment at the 1:52 mark) are the most indelible melodies on the album.
Still – and I know it’s a boring pick – my favorite track is single “Dirty Blvd.” One guitar lays down a simple three chord foundation (only picking up during the choruses) while a second splashes colors on top of it. The words are mostly affecting: how nothing’s left to be said for the rest of that measure when Lou Reed says, “He looks out a window without glass,” or how Reed runs through both “No one dreams of being a doctor, a lawyer, or anything” and “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on them” (great use of hard sounds). And even if I think the whole “He’s found a book on magic in a garbage can / ‘At the count of 3,’ he says, ‘I hope I can disappear’” might be too much fromage, the way it bounds right into the best singing on the album (by Dion DiMucci), that cheesiness is turned into hope.