Battle of Famous Albums, Part 3: Lou Reed

lou reed

Battle of Famous Albums can only happen when a band has two records that stand out in their discography and that are generally in very close competition with each other in terms of popularity and critical reception. If the band has more than two peaks, it won’t apply. Nor if one of the two peaks is regarded as much higher.

A reviewer once said that Lou Reed is one of the most empathic artists in account with his ability to express so many different emotions. And it’s true that he always managed to put himself in the shoes of the many characters he observed, not only telling us what they say and do, but making us feel what they feel. Making us understand what they’re like. This of course goes back to Velvet Underground’s impeccable discography, where Reed wrote from the perspective of junkies (Heroin), transgenders (Candy Says), incurable romantics (I Found a Reason) and religion devotees (Jesus) to name a few. How many of these characters were really part of Reed’s personality and how many were just fictional but perfectly portrayed due to his empathy is an interesting question; but one for another time and place.

What a music listener can gather from this information is that surely Reed’s solo career would prove to be a fascinating journey – not necessarily a bad or good one as quality is impossible to predict, but definitely one full of surprises. And the music listener would be right. From his 1972 Velvets-tribute Lou Reed debut to his infamous 2011 Metallica-collaboration Lulu, Reed’s proved himself an artist impossible to pin down and pigeonhole. Each album tells its own unique story; each paints a picture of what Reed’s life and state of mind were at the time, rarely backwards-looking or repeating itself. Now I don’t know about you, but to me this will always be infinitely better than an artist whose career may be more consistent, but ultimately safe and formulaic.

Yet from the whole long journey, only few records remain in the public consciousness as indisputable classics. New York could be one of them, but that one’s more like a silver age, comeback success. Rock n Roll Animal is a great live album, but in big part due to the Velvet Underground renditions it contains. And Songs for Drella really is a collaboration with John Cale. So that leaves us with Transformer and Berlin, two albums that came in succession at the beginning of Reed’s career and that prove not only his artistic genius but also his ever-changing approaches.

And the best proof of the different nature of these albums is perhaps the commercial reception at the time of their release. Transformer is what took a discouraged, penniless Reed (let’s not forget that Velvet Underground had been a failure on that front) and made him an overnight pop star. Of course this had a lot to do with David Bowie’s contributions here, his role as the record’s producer and occasional co-writer helping Reed appeal to a wider audience. He took Lou’s eccentric subject matters and dressed them in a clean, polished sound, with diverse and ear-grabbing instrumental touches (kudos to multi-instrumentalist Mick Ronson for that as well) and inviting harmonies on top of it all. And best of all, none of this is done in a forced way – it’s not about the “let’s add all the trendy touches we can in order to align ourselves with the chart-topping stars.” It’s more about the “I understand what he’s doing here and this is my idea on how to improve on it and make it more explicit.” The feeling that Bowie truly was one of the biggest fans of Reed’s original style and wouldn’t want to lose any of its uniqueness is always present throughout Transformer.

Berlin on the other hand is anything but a commercial record. Its story presenting a relationship that involves physical and verbal abuse, drug excesses and ultimately suicide would work just fine in a novel; but approaching subjects such as these in a 1970s rock ‘n’ roll record was still something beyond the pale. Especially given the style that Reed approaches here – whether he plays the narrator of any of the two protagonists, the words coming out of his mouth are not one bit censored, not even sweetened. They’re not hidden behind instruments either – whereas on Transformer you could either pay attention to the lyrics or not, Berlin forces you to follow the narrative. The production is sparse and its goal is more that of setting an atmosphere for the story to develop. And in that regard, Reed’s pairing with producer Bob Ezrin of the Alice Cooper fame is another brilliant decision.

But ultimately what made Berlin flop back in 1973 is exactly what makes it stand out today: this is a record that sounds unlike any other records. A record that explores its themes in such a powerful way that the initial shock is unavoidable, regardless of the time and place one hears it. A record where any of its individual songs wouldn’t make sense without the others. In my case, I really lost count of how many times it got me emotional. It may be cruel and pessimistic to the core, but it’s never unrealistic. Perhaps at times it sounds like a world that I could never imagine myself being part of, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling for the two characters. It doesn’t stop me from resonating, because I know they’re real. I know everything Lou Reed did was real and so are the emotions that his best work wakes up in me.

So although Transformer is a flawless pop-rock record from pretty much every angle, I feel Berlin goes a bit deeper than that, pushing boundaries and hitting nerves. It is not an easy listen, but if one manages to connect with it, it will not only pay off but stay like that forever. Berlin it is.

Buy Transformer (CD) from Amazon
Buy Berlin (CD) from Amazon

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Categories: Battle of Famous Albums

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20 replies

  1. Transformer every time for me!

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  2. Hard to choose between the two. Lou Reed was as innovative, influential, and interesting artists of his generation. Loved his New York attitude and “F” You! lifestyle, which certainly come through in his rhythms and songwriting. But I agree with your assessment of “Berlin”. “Berlin” it is. Great post! 😃

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  3. I love Transformer but I’m going with Berlin for its sheer audacity.

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  4. Oh. Tough one. Reckon that I’d have to go for Transformer. Just!

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  5. Great piece, and I’m with you on ‘Berlin’. Packs a real emotional punch, unlike ‘Transformer’. ‘Sad Song’ is heartbreaking, despite the violent lyric. But I wouldn’t agree that the production’s ‘sparse’ – Bob Ezrin throws everything but the kitchen sink at quite a few tracks, but in a good way.

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  6. Transformer is emotionally heavier because its characters are realer and the sound doesn’t emotionally manipulate its listeners (I’m thinking about the part where kids wail into the mic for 3 minutes). “Stephanie Says” was a lot more heartbreaking than “Caroline Says”; Lou Reed removed all the counterpoint and just slowed the tune down.

    Moreover, Transformer hid its sadness in happy, bouncy tunes; I’m specifically thinking about “Transformer” (bouncy) and “Satellite of Love” (perhaps Lou Reed’s catchiest songs). The production overall is more colorful (thank David Bowie).

    Voted Transformer

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  7. Transformer is such a feel good album for me, in the same way that VU’s ‘Loaded’ is, although I did pick up an old vinyl copy of Berlin recently – must have another listen!

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  8. I’ve always had a soft spot for concept albums, so Berlin has to win for me. Even though Transformer is still a great album and I love it dearly (I think “New York Conversation” perfectly captures my feelings towards listening to friends gossip about pointless nonsense), releasing Berlin was such a brave choice (death and depression aren’t exactly sellable topics). Even though Berlin doesn’t appeal to the masses, for those of us weird people who like to think about life and mortality, it’s terribly sad, but also strangely enlightening. It’s the realization that seemingly unreal sadness is, in fact, real, and that maybe there is something we could do to change that.

    Regardless, whether you side with Transformer or Berlin, Lou Reed is undoubtedly a genius.

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  9. I tried listening to Berlin again today after reading this review. And I have to tell ya, there’s no comparison.

    Berlin comes off as an over-produced string of song ideas drowning in inharmonic chords. Caroline Says II sounds like a bad night of Open Mic at the Villa Vosilla in Hunter, NY during a snow deprived winter. The title track is half baked in comparison with the live version found on American Poet (Transformer Tour).

    Maybe I’m being unfair. Just about everything pales next to American Poet.

    OK, I like the fact that Lou didn’t shy away from risks. But not everything worked. Sometimes on purpose. The Berlin record comes off like that, just empty of resonance. Contrived discordant melodies. I can’t stand to have it playing even in the background.

    Well, you said it yourself in your beautifully written piece, “it’s not an easy listen.” True dat!

    If Berlin is played in the middle of the woods, where nobody can hear it, and a bear wanders by — the bear will not admit to having heard it, either. Satellite of Love rules!

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  10. Calnlig all cars, calling all cars, we’re ready to make a deal.

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  11. oh, Denise! your photos ALWAYS make me wish I could go to a laundromat! it looks like so much fun! truth. haha, the “clothes are always whiter on the other side” i suppose!

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