Lou Reed

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Old Version

***1/2Lou Reed (RCA, 1972)
****Transformer (RCA, 1972)
***Berlin (RCA, 1973)
****Rock 'n' Roll Animal (RCA, 1974)
***1/2Sally Can't Dance (RCA, 1974)
*Metal Machine Music (RCA, 1975)
***Lou Reed Live (RCA, 1975)
****Coney Island Baby (RCA, 1976)
**Rock and Roll Heart (Arista, 1976)
****Walk on the Wild Side -- The Best of Lou Reed (RCA, 1977)
***1/2Street Hassle (Arista, 1978)
**Take No Prisoners -- Live (Arista, 1978)
****The Bells (Arista, 1979)
***Growing up in Public (Arista, 1980)
***Rock and Roll Diary 1967-1980 (Arista, 1980)
****The Blue Mask (RCA, 1982)
***1/2Legendary Hearts (RCA, 1983)
****New Sensations (RCA, 1984)
***Mistrial (RCA, 1986)
***1/2New York (Sire, 1989)
***Retro (RCA, 1989)
****Magic and Loss (Sire, 1992)
****Songs for Drella (Sire, 1990)

Don't come here looking for the focused, glowering brilliance of the Velvet Underground; you'll be disappointed. What makes Lou Reed's solo career so fascinating is his volatile unpredictabilty. In the '70s Reed's sense of direction often seemed downright perverse; he cultivated an outrageously decadent image, lurched from style to style, released masterful albums and quickie rip-offs back to back. Even as he returned to the Velvets' terse rhythm guitar strum in the '80s, Reed's songwriting continued to take unexpected turns. New York (1989) proves that the happily married, mellowed-out Reed can still raise a few hackles with his patented brand of provocative, street-smart rock & roll.

Lou Reed sounds a bit tentative coming after the Velvets' Loaded, though Lou regains his sea legs on the kicky, articulate "Wild Child" and the other tracks sink in over time. Many of these songs were Velvet Underground outtakes, later released on VU. Next to that album, Lou Reed's genteel art-rock treatment (courtesy of Rick Wakeman and others) seems beside-the-point. Co-produced by David Bowie, Transformer casts Reed in the role of androgynous glam rocker -- sort of like Ziggy Stardust's earthier, sexually brazen older brother. "Walk on the Wild Side" strolled out of left field onto the pop charts in 1973; "Shaved her legs and then he was a she" actually co-existed with the Carpenters and Donny Osmond. Of course, Reed's startling reminiscenses of those infamous Warhol superstars come cloaked in billowy sax strains and an ironic, catchy background chorus. Though Transformer is one of Reed's best known and most popular albums, overall it's uneven; the affected, campy tone (as well as Bowie's production) grows thin and brittle after a while. But the good bits are great: that snarling guitar riff on "Vicious," the halting beauty of "Satellite of Love," every last "do-do-do" of "Walk on the Wild Side."

Berlin, Reed's conceptual glory shot, is a bomb. With its majestic backdrop provided by heavy-metal producer Bob Ezrin and a wizardly cast of rock pros, this rambling, morose tale of drug-crossed lovers goes nowhere. Apparently relieved of any musical duties, Reed does what his critics have always accused him of -- talks in a flat Noo Yawk monotone rather than make any attempt at singing. He has to yell just to be heard on Rock n Roll Animal; however, that's a definite improvement. On this live set, a crack band led by guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner blasts its way though the supercharged renditions of "Sweet Jane," "Heroin" and "White Light/White Heat." Lou's fiery performance lacks the nuance of the Velvets originals, of course, but it's the perfect topper to this high-octane arena-rock party album. Lou Reed Live offers more of that same tour, though it's far less compelling.

Sally Can't Dance offers a snapshot of Lou Reed at his trashiest and most sarcastic; it's messy, but interesting. Over surprisingly funky horn lines and taut lead guitar lines, he dishes up the obvious dirt ("Kill Your Sons," "Sally Can't Dance") and slips in one of his most affecting ballads ("Billy") amid the glittery malevolence. Metal Machine Music is Reed's two-record amplifier noise opus -- a gigantic "fuck you" disguised as a groundbreaking experiment. Coney Island Baby couches some of Reed's most revelatory and sensitive lyrics in a deceptively slight soft-rock package; on the astounding title track, the former rock & roll animal recalls wanting to "play football for the coach."

Switching record labels, Reed released the eminently forgettable Rock and Roll Heart that same year. The pro-Onan thumper "Banging on My Drum" pretty much sums it up. Ballyhooed as an artistic triumph, Street Hassle is a somewhat stiff restatement of Lou's career up to that point. The guitar-driven nastiness of "Dirt" and "Real Good Time Together" has a welcome, bracing affect, but the orchestral title epic is hardly the sweeping tour de force it's intended to be. Take No Prisoners -- Live is a middling concert set ruined by endless between-song banter. As a stand-up comedian, Lou Reed makes a great rhythm guitar player. On the other hand, The Bells just may be his most ambitious work. Returning to Coney Island Baby's confessional mode and incorporating a subtle jazz influence, Reed makes one of his strongest musical statements. Reed's razor-edge frankness is riveting throughout. The appropriately titled Growing up in Public finds Lou contemplating marriage and middle age to the tune of galumphing FM-radio rock. Clearly a transition.

Walk on the Wild Side presents a succinct overview of the RCA years, and is preferable to the overreaching Rock & Roll Diary. (Including the Velvets' classics next to a spotty selection of solo Lou does neither act a favor.) Landing back on his old label and strapping on his guitar again, Reed finally wheels out the album many long-suffering fans had been waiting for. Still, The Blue Mask takes some getting used to. While the emphasis on six-string interplay and crisp rhythms revitalizes Reed as a writer, he now strikes a more personal tone; his new, almost-journalistic voice is a far cry from his earlier stance as poet of the demimonde. Guitarist Robert Quine and bassist Fernando Saunders prod Lou Reed beyond his previous achievements; he makes you believe that "writing, my motorcycle and my wife" now mean as much as the speed freaks and drag queens of yore.

With the addition of drummer Fred Maher on the solid followup Legendary Hearts, this unit functioned as an actual band rather than a hotshot backup group. (Then they broke up.) Reed's fresh songwriting approach crystallizes on New Sensations' haunting title track; this sober look at aging is bolstered by a quietly resilient melody. There's a casual, me-and-my-guitar feel to this album, but the offhand valentines ("I Love You Suzanne") and video-game sendups ("My Red Joy Stick") all pack a hidden punch. Mistrial is the only album on which Reed sounds like he's trying to keep abreast of the changing times; the drum machine tracks really aren't up his alley, while the rote three-chord rant "Video Violence" feels crochety and strained.

New York starts out strong; tracks like "Romeo Had Juliet," "Dirty Boulevard" and "Halloween Parade" indicate that Reed's observational powers and one-of-a-kind delivery are intact, while his ongoing duels with guitarist Mike Rathke bristle and sting. By the time Lou gets around to "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim" and "Last Great American Whale," though, he starts to sound like that seemingly smart guy at the local bar who always turns open discussions into opinionated diatribes. The elegantly understated "Dime Store Mystery," a tribute to Andy Warhol that also appears on Songs for Drella, the 1990 elegiac collaboration with John Cale, serves as a soothing closer to the occasionally overheated New York. Magic and Loss is an unblinking -- but beautifully executed -- look at death and sorrow. The album ranks as one of the strongest efforts of his career. Rest assured: whatever Lou Reed does next, chances are he won't repeat himself. -- M.C.