With the Republicans gathering for their lovefest in the Big Apple two weeks ago, I have been thinking about Lou Reed's album, New York. I loved the album when it came out, but I feared that it would sound terribly dated 15 years later. After all, it is easily Reed's most topical and political. Late 1980s references abound, from Bernard Goetz to Kurt Waldheim, along with figures who are still on the scene in a different context like Rudy Giuliani (who, of course, spoke at the convention).
I finally got a chance to revisit it this weekend. I had forgotten just how bitter and depressing the lyrics are. Of the fourteen songs, all but one or two are pretty bleak. Reed describes the hopelessness of lower class city life on much of side one. The single "Dirty Blvd." featuring Dion DiMucci is a highlight. Side two contains some heated political attacks, but sometimes they are a bit too scattershot to be effective. "Sick Of You," "Hold On," and "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim" have lost some impact with the passage of time, but "Hold On" opens with a memorable lyric: "There's blacks with knives and whites with clubs fighting in Howard Beach / There's no such thing as human rights when you walk the New York streets."
Musically, Reed and Mike Rathke lead a raw and powerful guitar attack, one in each stereo channel, on songs like "Dirty Blvd." and "Strawman." Other songs like "Last Great American Whale" and "Xmas In February" have a softer sound. Reed alternates between singing and speaking (rapping?), and his voice matches the feel of the music: urgent on "There Is No Time," somber on "Xmas In February," and ominous on "Dime Store Mystery."
The record ends with a powerful trio of songs. The subdued "Xmas In February" tells the poignant tale of an alienated Vietnam veteran. This is followed by the overwhelming, guitar-driven rage of "Strawman" where Reed takes aim at NASA and Jimmy Swaggart, among others. The climax of the album is the absurd image of "a gold ark floating up the Hudson." New York closes on a haunting note with "Dime Store Mystery," Reed's farewell to Andy Warhol. One of Reed's finest songs, "Dime Store Mystery" also foreshadows his exceptional Magic And Loss album of 1992. Although New York hasn't aged as gracefully as Reed's early 1980s recordings like Legendary Hearts and New Sensations, it is still a solid album. The intensity and spirit of the music save it from being written off as merely a period piece.