A mere seven months since his death on Oct. 23, 2013 at the age of 71, Lou Reed has received a magnificently fitting musical tribute that is unlikely to be surpassed in the coming years. The album, titled simply Lou, comes from Joseph Arthur, one of the most gifted, passionate, and prolific singer-songwriters working today. His 2011 release, The Graduation Ceremony, was filled with moments of delicate, exquisite beauty, while The Ballad of Boogie Christ (2013) and The Ballad of Boogie Christ Act II (2014) displayed conceptual and artistic ambition that one rarely hears in pop music today. Arthur deploys all of his many talents on Lou, and the results are impressive.
At his best, Reed was an exceptional lyricist, savagely chronicling a range of urban outcasts, misfits, and addicts. His observations were often shot through with a raw, undigested rage and sadness that could be powerfully intense. Musically, though, Reed was extremely limited, with a voice barely capable of carrying a tune, and a tendency to favor arrangements that foregrounded electric guitar playing that could charitably be described as rudimentary.
Arthur has gone with sublimely stark arrangements for Lou — to extraordinary effect. By placing 12 of Reed's finest songs in a radically different context, Arthur re-imagines them from the ground up, accompanying his lightly distressed baritone with delicately strummed or finger-picked acoustic guitar, restrained piano chords, elegant electric bass, and his own multi-tracked falsetto harmonies. (No drums or percussion.) The focus throughout is on spare but lovely vocal melodies that Reed's own substandard singing could only hint at in the original recordings.
The result is haunting and transformative. Familiar Reed classics — "Walk on the Wild Side," "Heroin," "Satellite of Love," "Pale Blue Eyes" — sound completely new. Meanwhile, comparatively obscure songs — "Sword of Damocles," "Caroline Says," "NYC Man," "Men of Good Fortune," "Wild Child," "Coney Island Baby" — become impossibly overlooked classics.
And then there's "Dirty Blvd.," a surprise hit from Reed's excellent 1989 New York album. The original was Reed at his most commercial: upbeat, punchy, and tautly syncopated, with a hooky rhythm-guitar riff repeated incessantly through the chorus. The downcast lyrics, drawing a portrait of stark urban inequalities through the story of an impoverished kid named Pedro whose father beats him "because he's too tired to beg," were undercut by the jaunty arrangement and Reed's own inevitably deadpan vocal.
Arthur's version is a revelation. The rhythmic structure of the song's basic three-chord progression remains unchanged, but the atmosphere has become hushed and mournful, like a mid-tempo folk hymn, allowing the lyrics to stand out in razor-sharp relief, slicing through talk-sung melody with a chilling power. We hear about Pedro's nine brothers and sisters, and the despair that suffuses their lives — all while movie stars arrive by limousine at Lincoln Center just after passing a small kid standing at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel "selling plastic roses for a buck."
Twenty-five years after the song was first recorded, deep into a new Gilded Age marked by even starker inequalities, Reed's angry indictment at the mid-point of the song hits like a live wire: "Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I'll spit on 'em / That's what the Statue of Bigotry says / Your poor huddled masses, let's club 'em to death / And get it over with and dump 'em on the boulevard."
By the song's end, indignation has given way to wistful yearning, with Pedro finding a book of magic in a garbage can and attempting a trick that would allow him an escape from hopelessness: "'At the count of 3,' he says, 'I hope I can disappear / And fly fly away / From this dirty boulevard / I want to fly.'" The longing for magical transport away from misery and squalor, repeated over and over like a prayer of desolation, with Arthur slightly varying the melody each time and harmonizing with himself, is incredibly moving.
It's a great song, by an underappreciated songwriter, transfigured by one of our foremost contemporary musical talents.