Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Lou Reed [extended]

  • Lou Reed [RCA Victor, 1972] B+
  • Transformer [RCA Victor, 1972] B-
  • Berlin [RCA Victor, 1973] C
  • Rock n Roll Animal [RCA Victor, 1974] A-
  • Sally Can't Dance [RCA Victor, 1974] B+
  • Lou Reed Live [RCA Victor, 1975] B-
  • Metal Machine Music [RCA Victor, 1975] C+
  • Coney Island Baby [RCA Victor, 1976] B+
  • Rock and Roll Heart [Arista, 1976] B-
  • Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed [RCA Victor, 1977] A-
  • Street Hassle [Arista, 1978] B+
  • Lou Reed Live: Take No Prisoners [Arista, 1978] C+
  • The Bells [Arista, 1979] B+
  • Growing Up in Public [Arista, 1980] B
  • Rock and Roll Diary 1967-1980 [Arista, 1980] B
  • The Blue Mask [RCA Victor, 1982] A
  • Legendary Hearts [RCA Victor, 1983] A
  • Live in Italy [RCA, 1984] B+
  • New Sensations [RCA Victor, 1984] A
  • City Lights [Arista, 1985] B+
  • Mistrial [RCA Victor, 1986] B
  • New York [Sire, 1989] A-
  • Songs for Drella [Sire, 1990] A-
  • Magic and Loss [Sire/Reprise, 1992] Neither
  • Set the Twilight Reeling [Warner Bros., 1996] A-
  • Perfect Night: Live in London [Reprise, 1998] **
  • Ecstasy [Warner Bros., 2000] A
  • The Raven [Sire/Reprise, 2003] B+
  • Animal Serenade [Sire/Reprise, 2004] ***

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Lou Reed [RCA Victor, 1972]
Hard to know what to make of this. Certainly it's less committed--less rhythmically monolithic and staunchly weird--than the Velvets. Not that Reed is shying away from rock and roll or the demimonde. But when I'm feeling contrary he sounds not just "decadent" but jaded, fagged out. On the other hand, he dabbles with the best of them. "Wild Child" has the offhand, reportorial feel of a Bob Dylan dream, "Walk It and Talk It" is a "2120 South Michigan Avenue" based on "Brown Sugar," and in "I Can't Stand It" lean post-gospel harmonies and a Stonesish bass line fill out that headlong mechanical "Here She Comes Now" rush. Question: what are the guys from Yes doing on this record? I mean, talk about staunchly weird. Or are we just talking about art-rock? B+

Transformer [RCA Victor, 1972]
All that's left of this great singer and songwriter is his sly intelligence, and sometimes I'm not so sure about that. Whether this is scenemaking music or anti-scenemaking music doesn't matter--it's effete, ingrown, stripped to inessentials. First line of strongest song: "Vicious, you hit me with a flower." B-

Berlin [RCA Victor, 1973]
I read where this song cycle about two drug addicts who fall into sadie-mazie in thrillingly decadent Berlin is a . . . what was that? artistic accomplishment, even if you don't like it much. Well, the category is real enough--it describes a lot of Ornette Coleman and even some Randy Newman, not to mention a whole lot of books--but in this case it happens to be horseshit. The story is lousy--if something similar was coughed up by some avant-garde asshole like, oh, Alfred Chester (arcane reference for all you rock folk who think you're cool cos you read half of Nova Express) everyone would be too bored to puke at it. The music is only competent--even Bob Ezrin can't manufacture a distance between the washed-up characters and their washed-out creator when the creator is actually singing. Also, what is this water-boy business? Is that a Buddhist cop? Gunga Din? Will Lou lick the bloomin' boots of 'im that's got it? C

Rock n Roll Animal [RCA Victor, 1974]
At its best, Reed's live music brings the Velvets into the arena in a clean redefinition of heavy, thrilling without threatening to stupefy. "Lady Day," the slow one here, would pass for uptempo at many concerts, the made-in-Detroit guitars of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner mesh naturally with the unnatural rhythms, and Reed shouts with no sacrifice of wit. I could do without Hunter's showboating "Introduction," and I've always had my reservations about "Heroin," but this is a live album with a reason for living. A-

Sally Can't Dance [RCA Victor, 1974]
Lou sure is adept at figuring out new ways to shit on people. I mean, what else are we to make of this grotesque hodgepodge of soul horns, flash guitar, deadpan songspeech, and indifferent rhymes? I don't know, and Lou probably doesn't either--even as he shits on us he can't staunch his own cleverness. So the hodgepodge produces juxtapositions that are funny and interesting, the title tune is as deadly accurate as it is mean-spirited, and "Billy" is simply moving, indifferent rhymes and all. B+

Lou Reed Live [RCA Victor, 1975]
This rocks almost as good as Rock n Roll Animal. But where that record reanimated the Velvets, the reworked solo stuff here is invested with the kind of contempt that Lou seems to think goes naturally with having a real audience. And I could do without the drumboasts on "Waiting for My Man." B-

Metal Machine Music [RCA Victor, 1975]
Lou's answer to Environments has certainly raised consciousness in both the journalistic and business communities. Though it is a blatant rip-off, it is not--philistine cavils to the contrary--totally unlistenable. But for white noise I'll still take "Sister Ray." C+

Coney Island Baby [RCA Victor, 1976]
At first it's gratifying to ascertain that he's trying harder, but very soon that old cheapjack ennui begins to poke through. Oddly, though, most of the cheap stuff is near the surface--the songs sound warmer when you listen close. And not even in his most lyrical moments with the Velvets has he let his soft side show as nakedly as it does on the title cut. B+

Rock and Roll Heart [Arista, 1976]
"I Believe in Love" is a fairly hilarious send-up of the let's-get-down game Lou is playing right now. I mean, could Mitch Ryder or Ian Hunter "believe in the Iron Cross" one line and "good-time music" a couple later? (Christ, I hope they don't take this as a challenge.) But the joke doesn't quite hold up, and sometimes it gets lost altogether, at which point Reed sounds like he's imitating his worst enemy, himself. Not the disgrace his followers believe, but not the bad-time music he's capable of. B-

Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed [RCA Victor, 1977]
Released to coincide with another label's publicity push for the new boy, this compilation may evince bad faith, but with (cocompiler) Lou that's part of the artistic statement. In fact, except for an intrusion from Berlin side one epitomizes what I now think of as his "New York conversation" phase--those casual, tuneless, bitchy/ironic/tender monologues endemic to Manhattan. And while side two is less coherent, moving from live Velvets remakes to another New York conversation to a deserving b/w to the surprising sweetness of "Coney Island Baby," it's as good cut for cut as any side Lou's released on RCA. A-

Street Hassle [Arista, 1978]
I know Lou worked his ass off on this one, but he worked his ass off on Berlin, too--like so many of his contemporaries, maybe he's better off not aiming for masterpieces. The title sequence honors Eros as much as Thanatos, a heartening development, and I'm a belated convert to "I Wanna Be Black," which treats racism as a stupid joke and gets away with it. But the production is muddled and the self-consciousness self-serving. B+

Lou Reed Live: Take No Prisoners [Arista, 1978]
Partly because your humble servant is attacked by name (along with John Rockwell) on what is essentially a comedy record, a few colleagues have rushed in with Don Rickles analogies, but that's not fair. Lenny Bruce is the obvious influence. Me, I don't play my greatest comedy albums, not even the real Lenny Bruce ones, as much as I do Rock n Roll Animal. I've heard Lou do two very different concerts during his Arista period that I'd love to check out again--Palladium November '76 and Bottom Line May '77. I'm sorry this isn't either. And I thank Lou for pronouncing my name right. C+

The Bells [Arista, 1979]
Lou is as sarcastic as ever--the lead cut is called "Stupid Man," and in a typically acid rhyme he links "capricious" and "death wish." But due in part to the music's jazzy edge and warmly traditional rock and roll base (special thanks to Marty Fogel on saxophone) he also sounds . . . well-rounded, more than on Street Hassle. The jokes seem generous, the bitterness empathetic, the pain out front, the tenderness more than a fleeting mood. And the cuts that don't work--there are at least three or four--seem like thoughtful experiments, or simple failures, rather than throwaways. I haven't found him so likable since The Velvet Underground. B+

Growing Up in Public [Arista, 1980]
This unabashedly literate album isn't pretentious on paper--Lou's just an educated guy for whom middlebrow names like Poe and Vidal and Shakespeare and Escher mix as naturally into the conversation as dictionary words like "harridan" and "lucid" and "ore" and "encroachment." But musically he's trying too hard with no place to go--projects the opener from midway down the esophagus as if Street Hassle leads to Street-Legal, then doesn't even stick with that. Mostly these are intelligent songs that misfire slightly. The two gems are two of the simplest both verbally and vocally. In one Lou's father gives him shit while his mother dies. In the other he proposes. B

Rock and Roll Diary 1967-1980 [Arista, 1980]
In which Mr. Heroin promotes the '60s. Really. Just compare the studio-Velvets first side with the hodgepodge-Arista closer and tell me he wasn't more confidently himself--I mean happier--negating optimism than fumbling through its aftermath. Admittedly, beyond the inescapable "Street Hassle" the Arista song choices are perverse even for Lou--three from his album of six months ago, neither great one among them. And beyond the inescapable "Walk on the Wild Side" the RCA choices aren't much more coherent (cf. RCA's own Walk on the Wild Side). So Clive's minions hire Ellen Willis to make sense of it all--which, striving almost too mightily, she almost does. B

The Blue Mask [RCA Victor, 1982]
After this becomes a cult classic, in a week or so, noncultists are gonna start complaining. "My Dedalus to your Bloom/Was such a perfect wit"? And then bringing in "perfect" again for a rhyme? What kind of "spirit of pure poetry" is that? One that honors the way people really talk. Never has Lou sounded more Ginsbergian, more let-it-all-hang-out than on this, his most controlled, plainspoken, deeply felt, and uninhibited album. Even his unnecessarily ideological heterosexuality is more an expression of mood than a statement of policy; he sounds glad to be alive, so that horror and pain become occasions for courage and eloquence as well as bitterness and sarcasm. Every song comes at the world from a slightly different angle, and every one makes the others stronger. Reed's voice--precise, conversational, stirring whether offhand or inspirational--sings his love of language itself, with Fernando Saunders's bass articulating his tenderness and the guitars of Robert Quine and Reed himself slashing out with an anger he understands better all the time. A

Legendary Hearts [RCA Victor, 1983]
If The Blue Mask was a tonic, the follow-up's a long drink of water, trading impact and intensity for the stated goal of this (final?) phase of Reed's music: continuity, making do, the long haul. The greatest songs on The Blue Mask honored the extremes he was learning to live without while "My House" and the like copped to the implicit sentimentality of his resolution. Here both ends approach the middle. "Legendary Hearts" and "Betrayed" clarify Reed's commitment by laying out the down side of romantic marriage; "Bottoming Out" and "The Last Shot" and the elegiac "Home of the Brave" excise melodrama from his waves of fear. Equally important, "Martial Law" and "Don't Talk to Me About Work" and the almost, well, liberal "Powwow" prove that sometimes his great new band is just a way for him to write great new songs, which is what his endurance had better be about in the end. A

Live in Italy [RCA, 1984]
Unlike 1969 Velvet Underground Live, this isn't a song album, which is no surprise--a guitar album is what I was hoping for. But unlike Rock n Roll Animal it isn't a showoff showcase, either--it's a guitar ensemble album, which is subtler than I was hoping for. Reed and Robert Quine get their moments, but the matter at hand is the interaction of a crack rock and roll band. One of the things that makes Quine a great guitarist is his formal tact, and just as Fernando Saunders's bass defines Reed's recent music on record, the modulated anarchy of Quine's acerbic fills and background commentary defines the live stuff. Even so, I wish they'd arrived at a way for him to cut loose more within the structure, especially since Lou doesn't seem deeply interested in the well-worn classics that dominate the show. The function of crack rock and roll bands, after all, is to set songs. B+

New Sensations [RCA Victor, 1984]
This wonderful record feels like product at first--a solid but expedient bunch of songs like The Bells or Coney Island Baby or even Sally Can't Dance. Although the title cut is definitely the centerpiece, and thematic at that, there are no grand statements like "Women" or "Legendary Hearts" and no tours de force like "The Gun" or "Betrayed." And boy, does it sneak up on you. Instead of straining fruitlessly to top himself, Reed has settled into a pattern as satisfying as what he had going with the Velvets, though by definition it isn't as epochal. The music is simple and inevitable, and even the sarcastic songs are good sarcastic songs, with many of the others avoiding type altogether. Think he can keep doing this till he's fifty? Hope so. A

City Lights [Arista, 1985]
His second Arista mix-and-match is said to unveil Lou the evolving romantic, though the voice is more compassionate than the songs it sings. The theme is "Gimmie Some Good Times," much more at home here than on the aimless Rock and Roll Heart. Who ever said a romantic couldn't crack jokes whilst baring his heart--his lust and anger casual, his passion no more deeply felt than his cool? Reinforcing the impression: all the sides you need of Take No Prisoners--one. B+

Mistrial [RCA Victor, 1986]
Young modern Lou makes his electronic move, dispensing with live drums on six tracks and leaving the programming to newly annointed computer whiz Fernando Saunders. Old fart Lou works up a pretty fair head of current decrying "Video Violence" and bows to the '80s by situating evil "Outside." His most expedient album since The Bells and his worst since Rock and Roll Heart. B

New York [Sire, 1989]
Protesting, elegizing, carping, waxing sarcastic, forcing jokes, stating facts, garbling what he just read in the Times, free-associating to doomsday, Lou carries on a New York conversation--all that's missing is a disquisition on real estate. I don't always find his politics especially smart--though I have no problem with his grousing about Jesse's Jewish problem, I wish he'd called the man on Hymietown rather than Arafat. But that's not really the point, is it? As usual, the pleasure of the lyrics is mostly tone and delivery--plus the impulse they validate, their affirmation that you can write songs about this stuff. Plus, right, the music. Which is, right, the most Velvets of his entire solo career. And which doesn't, wrong, sound like the Velvets. Not even as much as Galaxie 500. Just bass, drums, and two (simple) guitars. A-

Lou Reed/John Cale: Songs for Drella [Sire, 1990]
Lousy background music--absorb it over three or four plays, then read along once and file it away like a good novel. But like the novel it will repay your attention in six months, or 10 years. The music's dry because it serves words that make an argument worth hearing: Andy Warhol was a hard-working genius--a great artist, if you will--betrayed by hangers-on who no matter what carping philistines say gave a lot less to him than he did to them. Villain: Valerie Solanas, whose attempted assassination broke his generous spirit and turned him into "Society Andy." Inspirational Verse: "You might think I'm frivolous, uncaring and cold/You might think I'm frivolous--depends on your point of view." A-

Magic and Loss [Sire/Reprise, 1992] Neither

Set the Twilight Reeling [Warner Bros., 1996]
Ever since Sally Can't Dance, if not "The Ostrich," Reed has been writing stupid-sounding songs that outrage his intellectual fans and probably his stoner fans too. On his best album in over a decade, including three consecutive "serious" ones, these include the backward-looking "Egg Cream" (only a self-hater could resist that hook) and the silly-sexy "HookyWooky" ("Reed Reveals: Fucking Is Fun!") and even the defensively macho-cynical "NYC Man" (asshole's confession as asshole's boast). Hooray for Laurie Anderson, either for distracting him from his various higher callings or for urging him to be himself. In a related development, he rocks out on guitar. A-

Perfect Night: Live in London [Reprise, 1998]
honoring his own history with Dylanesque craft and disregard, only you can understand every word ("The Kids," "New Sensations") **

Ecstasy [Warner Bros., 2000]
Despite a few bloopers, including a love-equals-time metaphor he worked out for a Robert Wilson thingy, this is the album we hoped he'd make the first time we heard The Blue Mask--one of them, anyway. Disillusioned yet again to discover that the object of his affections is almost as fucked up as he is, Reed returns to the scene of his Oedipus complex while Roto-rooting the internal contradictions of enduring romance from every angle he can think of. But there's more regret than rage, and no sense of finality, as if he's been through too much to stay mean. And note that his relationships endure, including the one with Mike Rathke, Fernando Saunders, and Tony Smith, now the longest-running band of his roving career. With Lou's guitar firmly at the helm, they impart something like tragic beauty not just to intended soul-shakers like "Ecstasy" and the 18-minute "Possum," but to the existentialist joke "The Modern Dance" and the cheater's diatribe "Mad"--which I call the most original song on the record even if Reed prefers the one about the white slave and the black master. A

The Raven [Sire/Reprise, 2003]
Only a Lou-lou could love this concept album with a hole in the middle, by which I mean the theater piece that supposedly held all the new songs, old songs, new instrumentals, poetry readings, and cameo turns together. But though it's less than the sum of its parts, the parts are pretty arresting--Antony's castrato version of "Perfect Day," for instance, is a terrible idea in theory that ends up beating the original. Gee, maybe Poe actually was the progenitor of Selby and Burroughs and, more importantly, Reed himself, who delivers the theme-setting "Edgar Allan Poe" with a rhythmic intensity that is, let's be frank, a rare thing in literary criticism. Best Performance in a Supporting Role: Steve Buscemi as a somewhat younger Lou Reed doing a lounge act the older Reed wrote. B+

Animal Serenade [Sire/Reprise, 2004]
A career's worth of demotic artsong bedecked with occasional guitar-piano and a whole lotta Antony falsetto ("Smalltown," "Street Hassle") ***

See Also