The Voice's 1989 Review of Lou Reed's New York
The Lou Reed on 1989's New York is a different animal than the one we'd previously come to know. He's kicked drugs. He's explicitly political. "The archetypal Lou Reed song makes you feel compassion for somebody you never understood and never expected to feel compassion for," Voice scribe Tom Carson wrote of the album in his review. But this time around, a curve ball: Reed's trying to make you feel compassion for people, Carson theorizes, he's not even met. It's a beautiful, complex album full of Reed relenting to the power of the riff, trying, perhaps, to be as big as the album's title implies. "If anybody can claim New York as a title, it's Lou," Carson writes.
"I like the record better every time I play it, and I play it all the time."
The review in full is after the jump.
The Village Voice
January 24, 1989
Good Evening, Mr. Reed
By Tom Carson
At one point or another on New York (Sire), Lou Reed commits every mistake in the activist singers' handbook. Too often, these protest lyrics are gracelessly over-explicit, leaving you no room to discover anything. There are ironies so predictable that hearing them savored sets your teeth on edge, and moments of pathos undermined by their agenda-serving function. The blunt speech makes the sloppy thinking stick out -- you want to know more precisely who's being incited, or accused -- and one line exposes a whole style's built-in fallacy: declaring "This is no time for phony rhetoric" is rhetoric. Beyond that, our poet of the heart's back doors is now writing about subjects he's only every bit as on top of as any newspaper reader. Sometimes less -- it's Richard Secord, not William.
I like the record better every time I play it, and I play it all the time.
Musically, New York's among his very best. It reads worse than it sounds; irrespective of their other qualities, when you listen with lyric sheet in hand the words crowd out what his voice is doing to and with them, not to mention everything else going on. Once you quit reading, you're hooked, even though three songs or so still sound lousy.
I could talk forever about just the guitar sound on New York, how basic it is, and how infinite. But it'd be bad faith to take the art and dismiss the politics -- I don't like the distinction, and I do like the politics, though Lou seems only fitfully aware that artfulness isn't their enemy. I respect this album, and Lou and I do go way back (on my end anyway), so I owe my lover's quarrel with it and him my best shot.
Admittedly, hearing a politicized, socially conscious Lou Reed is weird. He hasn't worked out how he feels about those associations either -- after including "Bono" on a list of fanciful names for his unborn child in one song, in another he denounces self-righteous rock singers claiming a direct line to God. More broadly, he can't make up his mind if his message is best served by keeping the messenger unobtrusive, or whether he should remind us that he's Lou Reed, who after all has a distinctive take on this stuff.
The unacknowledged subject of New York (I assume the title's a switch on '73's Berlin: he used to be out there, now he's right here) is Reed's own change of heart, and his coming to grips with how best to honor the demands that today's political imperatives put on a materially comfortable, middle-aged avant-gardist. In some ways, the submerged themes are more provoking, and almost certainly more pertinent to his actual audience, than the trenchant but unsuggestive narratives packing the album's surface -- people getting shot, blighted ghetto lives, bad crud washing up on the beach.
Well, Lou can't live without dichotomy. But this born aesthete has usually framed the argument with himself in different terms. Up to now, his solo career was about the choice between his faith in rock & roll primitivism and -- contradictory, he thought -- high-art aspirations. At least in the liner notes, that schizophrenia crops up again here: Lou goes out of his way to say you can't beat the basic rock & roll combo, but also directs that New York should be experienced in one sitting, "as though it were a book or a movie." (Why not as though it were an album? you wonder.)
In the grooves, on the other hand, snaggly, unadorned riff-rock wins out, to its and Lou's permanent glory. But while I delight in New York's great noise, I find the rationale behind it as specious as I did the high art vs. riffraff dilemma. I think Reed's now willing to accept basic rock as his best medium on the grounds that it's serviceable -- i.e., that its generic structures have grown so familiar that today they can carry any message desired, the same way folkies conceived their use of Appalachian or Elizabethan ballads. While the music sounds wonderful, it doesn't do the job he wants it to.
"Romeo Had Juliette," the opener, does achieve not only grit but immediacy, its signature guitar phrase impatiently wheeling past every billboard the lyrics put up. (All right, fuck it: it's cinematic.) But most often, the music doesn't support or amplify what the songs are saying -- except in melodramatic lapses like the climaxes of "Strawman," the worst cut. On "Dirty Blvd.," Reed brings in Dion on the coda; but instead of being brained by the intended irony -- here's what the Belmonts' street corner looks like 30 years later -- you're just blown away by the beauty of Dion's vocal, which takes off from the sputter-butter riff and makes the same notes, well, sing.
Above all, the sound's autonomy keeps reminding you that Lou's coming to his subjects from the outside. It isn't as anachronistic as folkie ballads, but it isn't contemporary either. It stays identifiably his, and even more identifiably not theirs -- the urban underprivileged he's depicting on the record's most problematic songs.
They stay a "they" in other ways, too. The archetypal Lou Reed song makes you feel compassion for somebody you never understood and never expected to feel compassion for. Here, though he tries earnestly and usually unsentimentally to imagine his way inside the skull of, say, a Latino teenager on the Dirty Blvd., you never believe he met the kid. You also know beforehand that compassion's the emotion you'll be called upon to feel.
Folkies turn the disenfranchised into victims the same way bureaucrats turn them into statistics. Reed only commits that sin outright once, on his Vietnam-vet tearjerker "Xmas in February" (the title tells it all). More characteristically, and astutely, his subject is brutalization: these aren't the noble poor but the degraded poor, and even at his remove Lou understands that the worst of what society does to you is what it makes you do to yourself. On "Endless Cycle," he dresses in different socioeconomic drag the Oedipal patterns that have long fascinated him autobiographically, to modest, persuasive effect -- only the title is schematic.
Story continues on next page.