The second best Lou Reed album. No prizes given to anyone who manages to guess the number one correctly.
Let’s get this out of the way now – Coney Island Baby isn’t perfect. It’s evenly divided between trifles and truffles. Some of the songs on the second side (“Ooohhh Baby,” “Nobody’s Business”) seem to just fill the space because he wanted to regain footing as soon as possible following the failures of Sally Can’t Dance and Metal Machine Music. Similarly, he goes crate-digging through the Velvet Underground treasure trove and finds “She’s My Best Friend,” and decides to stretch a simple song over 6 minutes – a bad move. Furthermore, as the cover suggests, Coney Island Baby is playful. The ambition that made full albums like Berlin and New York some of his most highly regarded albums is only seen briefly here within the sprawling chaos of “Kicks” and the multipartite closer, “Coney Island Baby.” But lest we forget, Transformer was more playful than ambitious, and no one says anything bad about that one.
Robert Christgau nails this: “the songs sound warmer when you listen close.” Opener “Crazy Feeling” sets itself up as a typical lovey-dovey pop/rock tune, seen with its opening couplet, “You’re the kind of person that I’ve been dreaming of / You’re the kind of person that I’ve always wanted to love,” and with its modest backing vocals (as opposed to the ones that broke his self-titled album) and headbopping bell rings during the chorus. But with Lou Reed, nothing is ever that simple. The rest of the lyrics are sad stuff when you realize that he’s just observing the girl he’s in love with, as she’s approached by multiple men (“I seen those suit and tie johns buy one drink / And then buy you some more”) and he never does anything about it. Meanwhile, the tone is replicated by the slide guitar, which George Starostin notes as “the kind of licks that only George Harrison could master in his prime.” On the other end of things, when he declares, “I’m just a gift to the women of this world” as the starting line of the second side of the album, it might read blasphemous or hilarious, but he delivers it in such a deadpan manner, it’s like he’s saying it because he wants to believe it, not that he does believe it.
On the other hand, I can’t really read much depth in something like “Charley’s Girl,” but that hardly matters. Between Lou Reed trading verses with a bluesy guitar riff, the song just happily rides home on a horse made of cowbells and cheesy (not in a bad way, unless you’re lactose intolerant) backing vocals. “Kicks” kicks all sorts of ass too, partly because this sort of track is hard to come by in Lou Reed’s solo discography. It’s all about how Lou Reed plays with space between the licks of the second guitar, background chatter and occasional laughter makes you seem like you’re there with him (see the 1:59 mark especially, where there’s a loud commotion following Lou Reed’s “When the blood comin’ down his neck”). It contains one of Lou Reed’s most passionate verbal deliveries, machine gunning (“I n-n-n-n-need now, now some kicks”) his way through lines as the song gets faster (or at least seems to).
Finally, there’s the title track and closer, one of the best things Lou Reed has ever done. In comparison to “She’s My Best Friend,” “Coney Island Baby” deserves its runtime as the longest track on the album, two tracks strung together effortlessly. Lou Reed’s voice has always been lazy, and it’s not exactly like the man was much of singer, but it fits perfectly on the last track of the album, reading like a short improvised poem drawing from experience. The opening half has him describe a dream, “I wanted to play football for the coach,” and it’s such an innocent, repeated line that it literally came out of nowhere on the album. The guitar work is absolutely sublime too, playing fills around the mellowed drums and subtle female backing vocals. Lou Reed subtly shifts the track from his aspirations of playing football to making “Coney Island Baby” a declaration of romance, repeating the mantra, “Glory of love” over and over. Listen to the way he says, “I’m a Coney Island baby now,” and then whispers that same line, signalling the backing vocals to do the same, adding a sweet layer underneath his voice as he continues. Listen to the way his voice sounds in the outro, almost slurred as if he were a little drunk, giving us a parting line that’s a shout-out to his then-lover, something we’d never have expected to hear from such a man, “I’d like to send this one out for Lou and Rachel […] Man, I’d swear, I’d give the whole thing up for you.”
Have you ever heard a more romantic closing line?