Album Review: Berlin by Lou Reed

After the death of the Lou Reed, I have found myself revisiting much of his catalog.  I guess this is only natural, but it is a shame that we do not show some of our heroes more appreciation while they are still alive.  During this process, I found a reinvigorated interest in his third solo record 1973’s Berlin.

This record was a surprising follow up to to 1972’s David Bowie produced success Transformer, which featured Lou’s signature song “Walk on the Wild Side” and had a generally fun glam rock feel.  With Berlin, Lou throws much of this out the window.  He goes for a concept album, with much darker material, and ambitious production, including a full orchestra on many songs.

The album tells the tell of two lovers (Jim and Caroline) who meet in the titular city and fall into a twisted spiral of drugs, prostitution, domestic abuse and ultimately suicide.  It follows a fairly linear narrative, which starts out fairly optimistic, but quickly goes down hill.  Unsurprisingly many have found the record a dark, if not outright depressing listen (miles away from the much more laid back Transformer).

Musically the production is over the top.  It is produced by Bob Ezrin, known for such ambitious projects as Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies and unsurprisingly there are many sonic similarities here with both of those albums.  The opening song features, piano and sound effects that give it a trippy, jazzy party- like atmosphere, which is continued on the albums second track Lady Day.  Both sound quite good.  Men of Good Fortune, Oh Jim and How Do You Think it Feels, provide the albums back bone of straight forward rockers.  The guitar sound on Men of Good Fortune is booming, in a very mid-seventies or eighties glam kind of way that makes it sound a bit dated.  The same is true of the Oh Jim.  Also some of these tracks also have fairly subtle synthesizer parts that also feel a bit dated.

Overall this does little to detract from the album and for the most part works just fine.  The horn lines on How Do You Think it Feels and Sad Song, also fit quite well.  Additionally, the song Caroline Says I, features loud guitar and heavy bass alternated with an old timey sounding clarinet, line.  The song builds up in the chorus which features dramatic strings and group vocals.  It also features an excellent bit toward the end, where Lou goes into some chaotic, distorted Velvet Underground style guitar playing, against an orchestral back drop.

On the second half of the album the songs take a turn for the softer and more depressing.  Caroline Say II, The Kids, and the Bed all feature harsh subject matter, and softer guitar sounds.  It also features the album’s closing Sad Song, which features soaring guitars (that to me sound more eighties than seventies) and fluttering flutes that build up to an orchestral arrangement reminiscent of the one in Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb.

Now for the subject matter.  Men of Good Fortune details differences between how the poor and wealthy deal with the advantages and disadvantages they are faced with.  The songs states the men of poor beginnings “At heart they try to act like a man, handle things the best way they can, they have no rich, daddy to fall back on.”  Caroline Says I details what a petty, capricious and uncaring person Caroline can be, and contains Jim’s commitment to take it anyway.  Oh Jim and How Do You Think it Feels details the couple’s insecurities, alienation from the people around them and decent into decadent drug use.

Caroline II, is where the album takes a turn for the much darker, as it discusses Caroline as the victim of domestic violence in great detail.  The Kids goes further, discussing how the authorities have seized her children, because of her drug use and prostitution and indiscriminate sex practices, in public places.  The Bed may be the darkest track on the album, but it is a favorite.  It details Caroline’s suicide.  Lou Sings it in a near whisper, and it has an acoustic guitar backing.  It has one of the most beautiful and subtle melodies he has ever written, and feature a chorus of “oh, oh, oh what feeling” that is completely bitter sweet, to the point of almost being painful to listen to.  It is followed by the orchestrally decadent Sad Song, which features Jim’s commitment to get on with his life, and contains some fairly harsh lyrics: “I’m gonna stop wasting my time.  Somebody else would have broken both of her arms“.

Like he did with his two previous solo albums, Lou makes use of songs he wrote, with his former band the Velvet Underground, but at the time had not released any of the recordings he made of them.  These include Sad Song, Men of Good Fortune and Caroline Says II, which was derived from the much sweeter Velvet Underground recording “Stephanie Says”.  Additionally, Oh Jim makes use of the Velvet Underground outtake Oh Gin.  Additionally, the album’s opener and title track is a revamped version of song found on Lou’s solo debut.

Overall, Berlin is definitely a bit of a dreary record, but it has some good song writings and some interesting musical ideas.  It shows a darker side of Lou that many figured was under the surface, but did not really come out in his music at that time.  The album did poorly commercially in the US and Lou rarely played material from it in live shows.  In the years since, it has become regarded as a classic, despite the initial harsh words it received from critics.  While, I would not consider it my favorite of Lou’s Records, it is still a solid release and an essential part of his catalog.

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