You can do yourself a favor by tossing out “Men of Good Fortune” which plods too much like “Lady Day” before it but without a melody; and “The Kids” where Tony Levin (the bassist) tries to hold the first 6 minutes afloat all by his lonesome (it’s otherwise a melodyless Bob Dylan song) and 2 minutes after that of kids screaming for their mother – an easy contender for one of his worst songs. (Apparently, producer Bob Ezrin set up a tape recorder at his home and told his children that their mother died to get those two minutes’ worth. If that were done today, Bob Ezrin would likely have his kids taken away from him for psychological abuse, much like the protagonist of the story, ironically.)
For all the talk of Berlin being so different than its predecessor, it isn’t. In fact, the album in Lou Reed’s discography that this bears most similar to from a musical standpoint is Transformer. Though people remember “Perfect Day” and “Walk on the Wild Side” most from that album, the theatricality of “New York Telephone Conversation” and “Goodnight Ladies” are all over this record, and what is the dinosaur stomp of “Lady Day,” but the album’s answer to “Vicious?” This is glam rock, people. You’d think from the album’s negative reception that this was Metal Machine Music with lyrics (RollingStone’s Stephen Davis’ review has this tidbit: “There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them”).
For all the talk of Berlin being one of the most depressing albums of all time, it isn’t. In fact, when Berlin tries for catharsis, it’s often the album’s greatest failures – the aforementioned kids on “The Kids” or when the bed of angel voices in “The Bed” are given a full minute to themselves to do absolutely nothing at all. Similarly, compare how Lou Reed sings “This is the place where she cut her wrists” or the “oh, oh, oh, what a feeling”’s on “The Bed”; the latter is so much more evocative; love the melodic climb of the “oh”‘s and how his voice launches into the atmosphere with “what a feeling.” And when Lou Reed repeatedly sings “Sad song” in the second half of the closer over the most over the top arrangement you’ve ever heard (you can picture Bob Ezrin standing in the center of it all, conducting everyone by thrusting his hands higher and higher), it’s anything but what the title suggests. In fact, it might be the happiest song Lou Reed ever wrote.
So yeah, if you go into Berlin to give that new handkerchief you bought a run for its money, you’re inevitably going to be disappointed. Like musicals ending in death like Moulin Rouge or Sweeney Todd, though both had (spoilers) sad endings, it wasn’t really about that – it was about the music(al journey). So let’s talk about that. I personally think “Berlin” could’ve been shortened by a minute or so; Lou Reed just kept his damn mouth shut and let the piano do the talking. Elsewhere, check out when the strings come in on “Caroline Says I,” injecting a much needed melody into the song since Lou Reed has trouble carrying it by himself. Check out the main melodic theme of “Sad Song,” which sounds like it inspired parts of Philip Glass’ Glassworks. Check out Steve Hunter’s guitar solos on both “Hey Jim” and “Sad Song,” the former trading off with the horn arrangements and the latter being punctuated by them (also like how the first one suddenly turns into an acoustic ditty). And though the second Caroline doesn’t have nearly as much to say as Candy did, it’s still the album’s best melody and lyrics. And if you’re upset Lou Reed has slowed down “Stephanie Says” and added some super-sad lyrics for the sake of being super-sad, consider the piano twinkles which weren’t on “Stephanie Says.”
Final word: because The Dark Side of the Moon is thematic and not conceptual, and because there was a whole disc of Quadrophenia not worth hearing, I’m going to go ahead and call this the best concept record of ’73.