Opinion

The best tribute to Lou Reed is this album by Joseph Arthur

Lou puts Reed's signature sound into a radically different context

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.

More From...

Picture of Damon LinkerDamon Linker
Read All
A curtain falls
A stage.
Opinion

A curtain falls

Trump loses his grip on a Trumpified GOP
Donald Trump.
Opinion

Trump loses his grip on a Trumpified GOP

Letter from a demoralized Pennsylvania voter
PA candidates.
Opinion

Letter from a demoralized Pennsylvania voter

Let people vent to SCOTUS on abortion
Brett Kavanaugh.
Opinion

Let people vent to SCOTUS on abortion

Recommended

The daily gossip: January 26, 2023
Adam Scott
Daily gossip

The daily gossip: January 26, 2023

The daily gossip: January 25, 2023
Paris Hilton
Daily gossip

The daily gossip: January 25, 2023

Sundance 2023: The movies everyone's talking about
Sundance sign
Briefing

Sundance 2023: The movies everyone's talking about

The daily gossip: January 24, 2023
Andrea Riseborough
Daily gossip

The daily gossip: January 24, 2023

Most Popular

Schiff, Omar, and Swalwell unleash on McCarthy's committee rejections
Eric Swalwell, Ilhan Omar, Adam Schiff
The gloves are off

Schiff, Omar, and Swalwell unleash on McCarthy's committee rejections

Egypt's mummified 'golden boy' digitally unwrapped 2,300 years after burial
entrance to the Egyptian Museum
history unveiled

Egypt's mummified 'golden boy' digitally unwrapped 2,300 years after burial

Kevin McCarthy disavows GOP 30 percent national sales tax plan
Kevin McCarthy
'masochistic vote'

Kevin McCarthy disavows GOP 30 percent national sales tax plan