While my attempt to appreciate the music of the late Lou Reed logically began at the beginning with The Velvet Underground and Nico, the other title his name seems most synonymous with is his second solo release, Transformer. Another album with a music snob pedigree that is probably partly responsible for my avoidance for so long. Can anything ever be as good as the decades of hype and reverence built it up to be?
Opening track Vicious made me a lot more hopeful that Transformer might actually have a chance of meeting those expectations than Reed’s debut with the Velvet Undergound ever did. It still has the signature Reed vocal quirks, but straight away, it sounded like a huge leap forward musically and melodically. Less interested in experimentation and more concerned with well formed songs.
There’s old school rock and roll with Hangin’ Round and I’m So Free, complete with slick guitar licks. They’re more middle of the road than anything I expected from Reed, and I don’t mean that as an insult.
Walk on the Wild Side and Satellite of Love may have been the only Lou Reed songs I was really aware of before this week and they more than hold up. It’s obvious why someone like me, with the absolute minimal knowledge of his discography, knows these songs more than four decades after their release.
Make Up is a weird, almost playful combination of Reed’s attempt at a soft and sweet vocal delivery, quiet guitars and tuba. Yes, tuba (which will appear again in album closer Goodnight Ladies). It’s the kind of song that makes me think Reed may have had a much better sense of humour than the self-important, pompous view of him I’ve had all these years would suggest. New York Telephone Conversation falls into the same category with its jaunty piano and jokey vocals.
Maybe I missed some sarcasm in Wagon Wheel when Reed sings “Live your life and make a point of havin’ some fun”, but if I did, I don’t care. It’s good to hear something so seemingly light and breezy from one of rock’s most cantankerous blowhards.
What makes me like Transformer so much more than The Velvet Underground and Nico is the combination of storytelling and song writing. While a lot of the older album seemed like poems and essays forced into music, Transformer sounds more like the lyrics and melody were actually written together. Also, the complete lack of Nico helps too.
I don’t know how much comes down to David Bowie’s production, but compared to The Velvet Underground and Nico, Transformer is a straight up pop record, loaded with easily consumed toe tappers and sing alongs. Maybe that doesn’t say much for my musical tastes, but I do know that the Velvet Underground album will probably never get another spin at my place, while Transformer most definitely will.