Lou Reed: New York - Album Of The Week Club review

Lou Reed's New York was an angry love letter, a biting indictment, an open-hearted outpouring of empathy, despair, resignation, fury and outrage

Lou Reed - New York cover art
(Image: © Rhino)

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Lou Reed - New York

Lou Reed - New York cover art

(Image credit: Rhino)

Romeo Had Juliette
Halloween Parade
Dirty Blvd.
Endless Cycle
There Is No Time
Last Great American Whale
Beginning Of A Great Adventure
Busload Of Faith
Sick Of You
Hold On
Good Evening Mr. Waldheim
Xmas In February
Dime Store Mystery

From New York New York, or the romance of Woody Allen’s Manhattan; Lou Reed’s portrait of his home town was drawn from the mean streets he knew so well in his junkie years. New York is essentially a concept album, with instructions by Reed for it to be “listened to in one sitting as though it were a book or a movie”. 

Arriving in the first week of 1989, New York was an angry love letter, a biting indictment, an open-hearted outpouring of empathy, despair, resignation, fury and outrage that fully utilised Reed’s intimidating powers of poetic communication to tackle racism, child abuse, Aids, environmental issues, urban decay and more.

Withering satire dominates, with Dirty Blvd. one of many brutally funny vignettes. Dirty Blvd. is also fundamentally a great rock’n’roll song, and New York is an album filled with them, as Lou reverted to Velvet Underground aesthetics – two guitars, bass and drums – with occasional glimpses of Moe Tucker on percussion.

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Other albums released in January 1989

  • A Show of Hands - Rush
  • Skeletons in the Closet - Oingo Boingo
  • The Whitey Album - Ciccone Youth
  • Hunkpapa - Throwing Muses
  • Oh Yes I Can - David Crosby
  • Skid Row - Skid Row
  • After the War - Gary Moore
  • Technique - New Order
  • Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich - Warrant
  • Triumphant Return - Whitecross
  • Snakes 'n' Ladders - Nazareth


What they said...

"The album is so compelling an expression of the historical moment that it’s hard to tell what it will sound like down the line. What’s clear is that in whatever future there is, whenever anyone wants to hear the sound of the Eighties collapsing into the Nineties in the city of dreams, New York is where they’ll have to go." (Rolling Stone)

"We don’t need a self-righteous rock singer now – probably, we never did – but on New York, we got a worried and determined one. After dressing up in so many different costumes, Lou Reed revealed himself to be like the rest of his city: reasonable and resilient in a crisis, staring grimly at authorities too big to wrap a song around." (Pitchfork)

"Musically, New York‘s among his very best. It reads worse than it sounds; irrespective of their other qualities, when you listen with lyric sheet in hand the words crowd out what his voice is doing to and with them, not to mention everything else going on. Once you quit reading, you’re hooked, even though three songs or so still sound lousy." (Village Voice)


What you said...

Keith Jenkin: I remember this arriving on the back of a decade of mostly so-so Lou Reed releases. The album whilst mainly about New York also covers topics that could easily have been applied to many of America's biggest cities. The supporting musicians give Lou's lyrics room to breath and the whole record has a wonderful, and then very unfashionable organic feel. It was great to have Lou back on form and the album now sounds timeless with only the sleeve image giving away its late eighties origin.

Steve Reguly: Probably my introduction to Lou Reed and then The Velvet Underground. And Lou’s guitar tone hits like a brick and slices like a razor.

Warren Bubb: For me this has always been Lou Reed's seminal album. It's one of those albums which require your attention from start to finish. He would not hit these heights again. Masterful.

John Davidson: As Poetry set to music it's hard to find much to fault. As an album of rock music it offers very little beyond the lyrics to hold the attention given it's mostly strummed or picked country rock/blues tropes.

It's a curiosity rather than a classic (though i can see why it would appeal). Highlight is The Last Great American Whale. Almost impossible to rate, probably a 6/10

Mike Ollier: 5 star! Brilliant album. Great American Whale is one of Lou's bestest songs.

Chris Elliott: Always felt to me like one of those "return" to form records that really aren't. It's not a bad record by any means, but compared to Velvet Underground or his early solo work it's forgettable in comparison. Blue Mask from a few years earlier was more interesting. Given he made three truly great albums - this isn't a must-have Lou Reed album, equally it's not one of the godawful ones either - it's hard to really get excited about this. The drawback of making seminal albums is other stuff pales in comparison. Equally it probably is the most accessible Lou Reed album outside a greatest hits

Eric Lowenhar: I lived in NYC at the time this LP came out, and I do not think I ever heard an LP that captured the mood and difficult feel of a place at a certain time, let alone a city, like this did. Just an incredible album with lyrics that were more impactful than anything I'd ever heard.

Uli Hassinger: I'm astonished that most rate this one amongst Lou Reed finest releases. I prefer his early stuff with Velvet Underground and his records until 1975. Transformer and Berlin are the masterpieces of his solo work. Supercool, varied and dignified follow of -ups to his VU era. Everything after 1975 is not my cup of tea. 

This album is still pretty nonchalant, but sometimes a little bit monotone. The best track by far is the pounding Strawman. I prefer the faster tunes with a slight punk attitude like There Is No Time and Good Evening Mr. Waldheim. Halloween Parade is a nice more mellow song. On the other hand, I struggle not to skip Last Great American Whale and Beginning Of The Great Adventure which are totally boring and a waste of time.

In times of Poetry Slams this album should become popular again – to a great extent it's poetry with a musical background.

Overall the album is just too long. 10 songs with a playing time of 35-40 minutes would make a better album. 6/10 for me including a sympathy point because Lou Reed was a great personality.

Greg Schwepe: I had this on cassette when it came out, and probably only listened to the entire album maybe two or three times all the way through. A great revisit. The FM rock station I listened to played the heck out of Dirty Blvd. and I bought it on the strength of that cut alone. Probably played and rewound to that song over and over. 

Reed was not an artist whose music I might buy as new albums came out, but I thought I’d give it a try. Was familiar with his older output as Walk On The Wild Side was pretty much the only song that ever got played on the the standard commercial stations and even our little college station where you play whatever you wanted. I was probably more familiar with his songs that were covered by other artists; notably Mott The Hoople and David Bowie.

First off, Lou’s “recitative” delivery style. He doesn’t so much sing, but recites the songs. And I’m totally OK with that and enjoy it. If that’s something that you can’t stand you might as well not check out this album.

Secondly, Lou Reed is a story teller. In this case the story is about New York. Not all is good in New York. As Lou Reed sees it, it’s pretty much a shithole filled with junkies, hookers, crime, and a place where you gotta work to stay alive. Lou tells it like it is, and at times he’s pretty angry, but he’s a straight shooter. You can envision the tough streets and neighbourhoods he sings, er “recites” about.

Reed namechecks politicians, celebrities, criminals, and others who lived in or made news in New York. I tried to keep the mental list and lost track. But did hear Giuliani, Trump, former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, and Bernard Goetz.

The sound goes from jangly clean guitar to slashing raunchy guitar. Totally reflects the subject matter.

Overall, the album got better as I got deeper into it. Serves me right for not listening to the whole thing back in 1989! Good Evening Mr. Waldheim, Strawman, and I got to hear the original version of Busload Of Faith that I heard on Bob Seger’s last album. I think Lou got angrier as the album went on.

I also seem to remember a few years before and after New York was released, that other artists whose most well known output that was in the 70s also had a second wind as radio actually played something new from them versus the same old warhorses that got played daily. New releases like this, along with music from George Harrison, Robbie Robertson, and Eric Clapton got played regularly and showed that these legacy artists could get new music on the air. This is one I will revisit again.

Julian Preedy: Without question, this and Transformer are my favourite Lou Reed albums. I think New York has the overall 'cooler' sound to it.

Evan Sanders: I really enjoyed this one, and I wonder why I never bought it back when it was released during my college years. It starts off strong with Romeo Had Juliette, and the band stays tight throughout, while Lou's nearly monotone Dylanesque lyrics somehow fit. Dirty Blvd. is obviously the hit song that got the radio play, and there are lyrical and musical tidbits to enjoy in multiple other songs, including Last Great American Whale and Good Evening Mr. Waldheim

The closer Dime Store Mystery reminds me of U2 in how an album ends with religious themes. And although this group is rightfully non-political, I admit I was amused by the references to Trump and Guiliani, back when their influence was limited to the NYC area. 8/10

Ben Sedley: This album is a perfect combination of angry Lou and 80s lets fix the world attitude. It’s not the VU, but the 80s weren’t the 60s and Lou was fighting against bad politicians not fear of drugs and sexuality

Mike Canoe: For me, Lou Reed's New York is, by far, his best solo album - and, really, the bar was not all that high. I think Lou Reed has a lot of great songs but not a lot of great albums. For every song like Coney Island Baby, Street Hassle, The Blue Mask, or - to namecheck one that's not a title track - I Love You, Suzanne, there's a lot of mediocrity to wade through.

Additionally, his early solo albums seem to require an asterisk. Was Lou Reed responsible for making Transformer great or was it David Bowie and Mick Ronson? Same with the album Berlin and Bob Ezrin. Would Rock 'n' Roll Animal be the lauded live album it is without the guitars of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner?

On the other hand, New York has all songs written by Reed (including one co-write with guitarist Mike Rathke), as well as being co-produced with drummer/producer Fred Maher, whose biggest producer's credit up to that point was the debut album by synth-pop band Information Society.

I find the lyrics on New York better than most he's written because, well, they're not primarily about Lou Reed. He tackles big subjects, including systemic poverty, bigotry, political duplicity, and the general hubris of humanity. But he tackles them with a wry humor and turns of phrase that keep these songs from just being spleen-venting screeds. Great examples abound but favourites include, "The ozone layer has no ozone anymore and you're going to leave me for the guy next door?" from Sick of You or "There's no Mafia lawyer to fight in your corner for that 15 minutes of fame" from Hold On.

He continues to demonstrate strong empathy with his characters but now it's the impoverished Pedro in Dirty Blvd. or Sam, the homeless Vietnam vet of Xmas in February, and, especially, the protagonist of Dime Store Mystery. Halloween Parade, the one song that harkens back to his walks on the wild side, is now touched with melancholy because the "you" the narrator's singing to has died.

The album's music is just as good, generally upbeat rock'n roll, spontaneous but not sloppy, that lightens the weight of the lyrics. I like that Endless Cycle, a song about perpetuating dysfunctional families, has music as gentle as a lullaby - and that the lilting chorus of "ba ba" near the end of the song draws parallels between actual sheep and the song's metaphorical counterparts. I like how the guitar "chuckles" during the line "Somewhere a landlord's laughing till he wets his pants" on Dirty Blvd. or that the last sound you hear on The Last Great American Whale sounds like a whale surfacing and spouting, suggesting - to me anyway - that the whale is eternal - like any good myth should be.

New York came at the end of a decade where Lou Reed really focused on getting cleaned up and I think that's obvious from the album's quality. He sounds absolutely invigorated. I won't argue that Lou Reed is a perfect singer. But he is absolutely the best singer for these songs. And it doesn't seem coincidental that the last sounds on the album are fractured guitar and (uncredited) anguished cello interwoven with Maureen Tucker's thumping drums in a subtle but glorious callback to the sound of the Velvet Underground.

Iain Macaulay: The first time I heard the Velvet Underground was hearing Heroin played on Tommy Vance’s Friday rock show, of all places. It was a major WTF ! moment because it really made an impact between all the hard rock and metal he usually played. It definitely wasn’t Bon Jovi or Motley Crue, that’s for sure. Of course, I’d heard of the band but, up until that point in the late 80’s, I’d never actually heard their music. 

Then I read in NME or Sounds that Lou Reed had a new album out and bought it. It was the first Lou Reed album I bought, on cassette, but not the last. To be clear, it’s maybe not rated as his best by some purist fans, being too accessible compared to some of his other output, but, rightly so, it is rated up there with his best. And regardless, I like it. And that’s all that matters to me.

It’s such a simple album. Two guitars split either side of the mix playing very raw and effective rock'n'roll with touches of jazz and country thrown in, with a very fitting raw production. But it’s the lyrics that really do it because they are not throwaway lyrics, they have a purpose and a story to tell, and they do it very well. As you listen they create scene after scene of an alternative tourist guide to the city of New York. A city much more like Travis Bickle’s in Taxi Driver than Carrie Bradshaws in Sex And The City. A town full of transsexuals, prostitutes, drug addicts, the poor and hungry, greedy politicians and corrupt preachers.

As an album it’s angry, but it’s not brutal, it’s grown up and very literate. And It hasn’t really aged. Lyrically it’s still unfortunately as relevant, if not more so, than when it came out. With some of the characters mentioned in the songs more infamous now than at the time the album came out. His dig at right wing politics not withstanding. He points out the hypocrisy and stupidity of the public figures and officials in his home city through a very working class lens, but in the end, it could be any city because the themes are universal. 

Like Lou said, it needs to be listened to in one sitting to get the full effect of it. Just like when you settle down to watch a great Scorsese film. You know it’s going to be raw and difficult in places, but at the end it will be very satisfying, and you will remember it.


Final score: 7.82 (81 votes cast, total score 634)

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