Lou Reed: New York (1989)

The late great Lou Reed probably had a more personally frustrating solo career than any of my musical heroes (ok, maybe Alex Chilton comes close).  As was the case for so many people, the Velvet Underground were a truly life-changing band for me, illustrating over the course of a mere 4 proper studio albums just how much could be done within the rock and roll paradigm.  Which is why it was always so painful that, in the decades that followed their 1970 break-up, Reed so very rarely approached the heights of his original band.

Sure, there were some really good, maybe even great albums -- 1972's Transformer is of course terrific; his self-titled debut from earlier that same year was an underrated gem, comprised as it was from new recordings of a lot of VU leftovers (though the subsequent release of the original Velvet Underground outtakes has rendered it somewhat superfluous); and I'm actually a fan of his gloomy, bombastic Transformer follow-up Berlin, though I appreciate that others find it a tough slog.  But after that, his output was erratic at best, moments of near-genius spread out over countless meh albums.

Which is why 1989's New York was such a hoot.  Here was Lou fully engaged, with an album full of catchy tunes that unfailingly rocked, free of the sturm and drang and self-indulgence that spotted other albums.  It was also heavily political in a way that Reed typically avoided, a savage look at a downtrodden NYC and a corrupt DC that felt thoroughly of-the-moment without sounding instantly passé like some of his prior attempts at 80s relevance.  (Which isn't to say some of it isn't dated; Reed's over-reliance on events of the day and periodic name-drops of minor Bush I-era political figures and New York headline-grabbers, while making this sound vibrant at the time, don't exactly lend themselves to timelessness.)

But so many of these songs stand up among Reed's best post-VU work, great riffs and straight-ahead near-pop rock & roll.  Kick-off track "Romeo Had Juliette" is as solid a single as Reed had come up with in years, love amongst New York's downtown gangs and violence, the hope and hopelessness that pervade the album perfectly cued up.  "Dirty Blvd." is even better, a 3-chord instant classic that picks up the same themes, as seen through the eyes of a poor kid on the block.

The rest of the album is littered with great characters and observations.  "Halloween Parade" revisits some of the Transformer-era nightlife denizens in a post-AIDS New York; "There Is No Time" is as forceful an anthem of revolt and action as the oft-checked out Reed would ever offer, beneath a rousing, frenetic riff; "Busload of Faith" carefully walks the line between urban blight and optimism that permeates the album; and "Hold On" is more city storytelling, elevated by a ridiculously infectious guitar hook.

Reed takes the sort of poetic storytelling of prior works like Street Hassle to an exaggerated degree, a dense and messy lyric sheet that is at times redundant and, as noted, subject to becoming dated; but it's also vibrant and engaging, a you-are-there travelogue from someone who knows the city better than pretty much anyone.

Here's the video for "Dirty Blvd.":
Here's a live take on "Romeo Had Juliette":
..and a live "Hold On":