Lou Reed | Coney Island Baby (RCA/Legacy)

Coney Island Baby announced Lou Reed as a career artist, skirting on the edge of avant-pop: palatable, yet still provocative to mainstream America.

 

cd_loureedEach artist inherited generations after their emergence carries a preconception. For every new audience, Bob Dylan will be the folk troubadour who documented the political unrest of the 1960s; Bruce Springsteen becomes the progenitor of the main-street anthem; Lou Reed is the perpetual gutter glam poet of NYC, whose cult image came to stand in for his stories of dealers, whores, and heathens. Coney Island Baby slips into Reed's canon as his great return. Return to success, perhaps, but it is not a return to the gutter. Coney Island Baby is adult in a very different way—the adulthood of nostalgia, cocktail party dementia, and self-help talks into the mirror. Sure, it is a bit of a sellout album, but the desperation to produce a success forced Reed into a newfound emotional honesty.

Reed's previous release, Metal Machine Music, was one of the most overwhelming failures ever put to vinyl. Reed was closing his coffin from the inside and had to deliver a record that would sell. For perhaps the first time in his career, he was forced to perform as if he did not help define rock's dangerous potential. The monotone sing-speak Reed once had brandished to create the ironic distance of the voyeur here turns instead into confessor and chronicler. On the epic title track, he gazes away from the grime of his surroundings and into memory. With its bookended admissions that Reed "wanted to play football for the coach" and that he "would give it all up" for his lover, the song feels like a vulnerable moment overheard. It is us who have become the voyeurs.

One thing Reed never completely grasped, however, was hooks. Album opener "Crazy Feeling" comes off awkward in its attempt to be upbeat, with all the shmaltze of an Eagles AOR song. He follows it with "Charlie's Girl," which would be a highlight if it didn't sound like an early outtake of "Sweet Jane." He recalls why he is so essential in "Kicks," a musique concrete masterpiece, weaving in the swirling noise of a cocktail party with a conversation about getting your "kicks" from nonsensical violence. The song captures the casual creepiness of Brett Easton Ellis decades before American Psycho.

This remastered release sparkles when it needs to, cleaning up the original version's greyer shades. Coney Island Baby announced Lou Reed as a career artist, skirting on the edge of avant-pop: palatable, yet still provocative to mainstream America. Pop music has always been better at getting people to listen than the avant-garde, but doesn't always have anything to say. For those who mourn the sellout album, look to the liner notes: Coney Island, the ocean air, the entertainment bazaar, the landmark, the graveyard. It is all there, if you look behind the tilt-a-whirl. A-

RIYL: Velvet Underground, Leonard Cohen

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