❉ Lou Reed’s 1989 “return to form” remains fresh, writes Huw Thomas.
“Throughout New York, Reed sounds studious and revitalised; the self-righteous figure from Mistrial is gone and replaced by a concise, droll observer you can side with. Reed takes aim at America’s race and class distinctions and pull no punches.”
1989 was the year of the “return to form”. Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy, Neil Young’s Freedom, Eric Clapton’s Journeyman – all were hailed as reinvigorated instalments in grizzled rock careers. In most cases, these “return to form” records signalled a crucial career turning point; acts making peace with being a veteran, a stadium sell-out if no longer a chart heavyweight. Flowers in the Dirt saw Paul McCartney tread Beatle’d ground three years after the disappointment met by the Hugh Padgham-produced Press to Play. With Steel Wheels, the Rolling Stones finally played ball with the public’s expectations ahead of their biggest world tour yet. Perhaps the most unlikely “return to form” record came from the always-aloof Lou Reed. Described by Rolling Stone as “indisputably the most ambitious album” of Reed’s career, New York is issued in a new deluxe edition by Rhino today (25 September, 2020).
Reed’s previous album was 1986’s Mistrial, a lacklustre jaunt with his lyrical insights reduced to reactionary observations about MTV and “video violence”. The Lou Reed of the 1960s, however, was growing in relevance. The Velvet Underground were increasingly being recognised as one of the most important bands of their era while a crop of new indie acts used the band’s sedate anthems as a blueprint. It was three years, a then-unprecedented length of time between albums in Reed’s career, before New York emerged. During this time, Reed wrote, and rewrote, new songs with his most crucial lyrical content for years. These were songs about a broken America through the lens of New York, and Reed was determined to create a direct, penetrating record. “I spent almost three months writing those words,” he told Rolling Stone. “The lyrics should sound really simple and with a really easy flow to them, but it took a lot of rewrites to get it to that point”.
The album begins with Romeo Had Juliette, with opening lines as evocative as ever laid down by Reed; “Caught between the twisted stars, the plotted lines, the faulty map that brought Columbus to New York”. Throughout New York, Reed sounds studious and revitalised; the self-righteous figure from Mistrial is gone and replaced by a concise, droll observer you can side with. Reed takes aim at America’s race and class distinctions and pull no punches.
Dirty Blvd. describes Pedro, a boy who leads a desperate life in Manhattan, abused by his father and exploited by the greedy. It’s a frank dissection of the myth of social mobility and the American Dream (“No one here dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or anything / they dream of dealing on the dirty boulevard”). In Hold On, Reed refers to two African-American victims of police brutality by name, Eleanor Bumpurs and Michael Stewart, and rebrands New York’s most famous monument “the Statue of Bigotry”. Perhaps it’s an obvious observation, but these songs have not lost any relevance.
Some of the songs allude to personal losses. Halloween Parade describes an event on Christopher Street, the centre of New York’s gay rights movement. Despite the presence of “a down town fairy singing Proud Mary” and “a tinkerbell in tights”, Reed mourns the friends lost during the 1980s. On the album’s brooding closer Dime Store Mystery, Reed ruminates on the sudden death of his mentor Andy Warhol over a slow-burn arrangement incorporating a cello and percussion from his Velvets bandmate Mo Tucker.
While the subjects are often dark, there is still some comic moments on the album. The admirably heavy-handed Last Great American Whale is about a literal whale. In Sick of You, we hear that Donald Trump “got the mumps and died being treated at Mt. Sinai”.
Perhaps to respect the often-heavy lyrics, the production on New York avoids extravagance. Almost all of these songs were recorded live, and the instrumentation has a vibrancy and simplicity absent from Lou Reed albums for years. There’s an attractive restraint about the pared-back arrangements, with Reed’s untreated voice out front, that is far removed from the mire of over-production other rock stars were in. Put simply, this album doesn’t sound “80s”. In fact, these productions have more in common with post-millennial indie rock – Good Evening Mr Waldheim cuts a lean figure you could mistake for the Strokes or the Cribs.
This reissue’s second disc features live recordings of every one of the album’s songs taken from Reed’s 1989 tour, where he performed the numbers in album sequence. Though the sound quality is average, the mixes and performances are strong but it’s a little too close to the album to be an enlightening alternative. The third disc features an assortment of work tapes and rough mixes. Like the live recordings, some of these tracks are not greatly interesting due to their closeness to the final versions. It is, however, a joy hear a work tape of Lou singing Endless Cycle and explaining how he wanted the bass and drums to sound with finger clicks and “bom bom bom”s. He sounds animated and excited, quite different to his knotty reputation.
The Room, a piercing, hypnotic guitar instrumental originally released as a B-side to Dirty Blvd., is a welcome inclusion. The third disc ends with two great, buoyant 1989 live renditions of Sweet Jane and Walk On The Wild Side. A fitting finish to a deluxe edition starring a focused Lou Reed with plenty to say. Quite uniquely for an album by a hardened rock legend entering the 1990s, New York remains what it was heralded as 31 years ago; one of Lou Reed’s greatest and most essential albums.
❉ ‘Lou Reed: New York’ 3CD/DVD/2LP Deluxe Edition available from Rhino Records, 25 September, 2020 on CD and on double 180-gram audiophile vinyl.
❉ Huw Thomas is a musician and writer from Radnorshire, Wales. His special interests include Northern Irish band Cruella De Ville, Cardiacs, Back to the Egg and Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt. He tweets as @huwareyou.
Header image: Copyright: 1989 Frans Schellekens