LOU REED was something of a mixed bag. For every Berlin and Transformer there was a Metal Machine Music or, god forbid, a Lulu. Tracing the solo careers of The Velvet Underground is no difficult task, since it begins and ends with John Cale and Reed. Mauren Tucker went on to become a Tea Party member.
Reed probably went the furthest in distancing himself from the Underground’s legacy, practising the art of being an obstinate prick in interviews and making music that almost no one could physically stand listening to, inbetween writing beautiful tracks like ‘Perfect Day’ and ‘Walk on the Wild Side’. So, maybe he never really did get that far from the Underground.
New York almost seems like an apology to long-suffering Reed fans that clawed through the experimental miasma. Coming at the peak of 1989, the album is a straightforward rock n’ roll piece which, ironically, positioned Reed as an iconoclast even as he went back to basics.
Though the record suffers extensively from riff-heavy, “truck-driving” guitar languish, Reed’s lyrics are punchy and arresting. He’s dynamic when the music is meandering, firebranding when the music is tepid, and furious when the music is flatlining.
‘There is No Time’ summaries this effect in the most succinct fashion. Insistent and immediate, its chorus a repeated refrain of, “There is no time,” the track is a rallying call to “a time for action / Because the future’s within reach”. Among other things, Reed highlights the crack epidemic, phony patriotism and a need to stand up and be counted. Often so inward-looking, Reed shares his vision with strangers, and the effect is rousing.
‘The Last Great American Whale’ is a vicious rebuke of American attitudes to animal welfare, where “animal life is low on the totem pole”, where Americans, “Don’t care too much for beauty / they’ll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream.” The track is brutal and exacting before it dissolves in the steam and screech of a subway train, without ever offering a solution.
‘Beginning of a Great Adventure’ sounds like it belongs in a smoke-wreathed jazz bar on the East Side, wherein Reed expresses his drawled reservations over ever becoming a father: “Some senile old fart playing in the dirt.” ‘Busload of Faith’ vanishes into a dense fog of thinly-veiled misanthropy and militant atheism. ‘Sick of You’ features a decapitated President’s head and a missive on the perils of nuclear power.
‘Dirty Blvd.’ focuses on Pedro, an impoverished youth living in a welfare hotel, and addresses class inequality and “the Statue of Bigotry”. No matter how accurate and frank Reed may be, the levels of cynicism are sometimes overwhelming. His half-spoken, half-sung delivery is Dylan-esque, as are his socially-conscious lyrics. They’re also, surprisingly, straightforward; in avoiding the poeticising obscurantism Reed often endorsed, he managed to retain their sheer lyricism – it’s a shame the music is so pedestrian in comparison.
Provided by Mike Rathke, Rob Wasserman and Fred Maher (with contributions from VU drummer Mauren Tucker on ‘Last Great American Whale’ and ‘Dime Store Mystery’), the Southern-tinged six-stringing quickly gets tedious; sometimes, so does Reed’s grandstanding.
The trouble with New York is, really, all the tracks sound the same. There’s nary a middle ground or curveball to be found; we’re revisiting the same basic track each time, with different lyrics. There’s simply not enough variety to carry the record, no matter how good Reed’s lyrics are (and they are very, very good most of the time). His righteous anger is offset too heavily by the relaxed bar-rock of the other musicians.
New York really needed the abrasive noise that Reed is so often characterised by to really ram home his messages; we’re too lulled to really take in his words. As a result, the album founders, unsure of its own identity.