Lou Reed, Transformer

The problem with this album is it's not nearly as hip as it thinks it is and far more transgressive than it had a right to be. Now, in these permissive times, an album with direct references to transgender life, drug use and oral sex might seem de rigueur, but it wasn't in 1972, and it better be damn good music to justify dropping those kinds of pearl clutchers. Sometimes it is: the production, by glam man David Bowie himself, is far more than you would expect from Reed's roots in the underground music scene, and when it fires on all cylinders you get sly trilling rockers like "Vicious," a strong leadoff track you can imagine being played for attitude at Warhol revivals everywhere, and my personal favourite, "Perfect Day," simply arranged, simply written, richly played. But Reed's maddeningly laconic and almost tuneless delivery sinks most of the rest of the tracks no matter how good. The production and Bowie's own vocal backing largely rescues "Satellite of Love" (even if the space-race-relationship lyrics defy rational analysis), and the infamous "Walk on the Wild Side," exposing every blemished inch of flesh of its underbelly like a hooker past their prime, plays to his vocal style and throws enough musical curveballs to keep it interesting even if RCA had to cut it to get it on the radio. You can contrast that against the irritating "Make Up," though, a tale of drag queens that just drags, the flat "Wagon Wheel" and the inexplicable "New York Telephone Conversation" in which Reed drags his vocal cords like fingernails across the blackboard of your ears to an oblivious piano background. The man can sing, truly, and he does in "Perfect Day" particularly but also in "Andy's Chest" where he seems to forget he's supposed to be detachedly cool and belts it out a bit in the bridge, but I got really fed up with him holding back vocally when thematically he does anything but. (Thought question: why on earth does everyone think "Perfect Day" is about heroin? If it really was, don't you think he would have sung that? I mean, he was willing to sing about everything else.) I couldn't stand to listen to "Goodnight Ladies" one more time while writing this, he's almost off-key. The bottom line is you only get to be successfully outrageous in an album if you have the musical chops to match and if you actually use them. You can't expect people to put up with the rest of it if you deliver it all like a stoned tomcat. As proof, the CD reissue includes two acoustic demos (of "Hangin' 'Round" and "Perfect Day") stripped of the Bowie sugar and Mick Ronson arrangements, leaving you only with his unvarnished voice and a suffering guitar. Ye gods. (Content: adult themes.)