Joseph Arthur has been prolific, particularly of late, three records in three year, his last (a double), still pretty fresh and now an album-length tribute to Lou Reed. Simply called Lou, Arthur pays his respects by reinterpreting catalogue highlights from Lou’s solo career and The Velvet Underground. The tracklisting is an exquisite highlight reel, cherry-picking magic from that first VU album all the way up to Set The Twilight Reeling (the last necessary Lou Reed album? I think so).
These versions feature only voice, acoustic guitar and piano, it’s Joseph Arthur on his own, self-produced. And even the way he’s arranged the order of these songs tells an important story. It’s about the work. The quality of these songs as pieces of writing – and though Arthur manages to arrive at very much his own versions you can believe, at every step, that he’s aiming to strip the songs of any baggage, to present them as pieces of emblematic, idiosyncratic, extraordinary writing.
He addresses the elephant in the room by opening the record with Walk On The Wild Side. Gone is that proud bassline (well, actually it was two basslines that’s why it never sounded right when covered, even Lou couldn’t do it justice when he played it live) and also missing is the jazzy ghost of brushed snare and that saxophone waft. It’s just the piano that leads, acoustic guitar peeking in and around Arthur’s voice. It was always easy to lose Wild Side inside the version of the song that threatened to dwarf Reed’s career if you were only a casual fan and seemed to be that most resented tune by the devotees. Here it’s a gorgeous, affecting ballad.
And then we’re straight into Sword of Damocles – an urgent acoustic down-stroke strum, this time the piano does the peeking. And wow, what a song. This was always a catalogue highlight but here Arthur has to find a (new) melody. His biggest challenge (outside of overall respect) in reinterpreting Lou’s tunes no doubt. Where, on the original, bowed bass, treated to evoke a cello stretched toward maudlin, made a mournful moment of longing sound so wonderful, here it’s just Arthur’s voice. He’s able to nah-nah-nah like a one-man-band of the Coloured Girls Lou called for on Wild Side.
Through a delicate drop of Stephanie Says to Heroin as if it’s the very best cover version Bono could offer the world, we then arrive at NYC Man. Reed wouldn’t have ever played this to follow on from Heroin but it makes a lot of sense. And then to Satellite of Love, again reminiscent of what Bono did with the tune, but never as cloying.
Dirty Blvd. sounds anew with that dirty, crude-chord riff dispersed – sure, this’ll never improve on the street poetry of the original but it’s a new way of looking at it. We probably never expected to hear new versions of Lou Reed songs – to actually see and hear and feel something new from them. And that’s Arthur’s secret triumph here. Every song is celebrated as an extraordinary literary achievement – but it’s newly cast. These don’t ever quite improve on the originals – as that’s never their intention. But they might be more enjoyable to hear from time to time. That’s the case with the version of Pale Blue Eyes. It’s more heartfelt without the tambourine that cutes-up the original; makes it seem ever so slightly like a novelty song.
And then to another of Arthur’s real triumphs here, the title song from Magic and Loss. Okay, so I’m biased, this is my favourite Lou Reed album and I didn’t expect to hear two songs from it in anyone’s list of favourite Reed songs (outside of my own) but again here it’s the way Arthur wholly reinterprets the song, finding a brand new tune inside it. Vocally it’s the highlight of the album.
By the time we get to the perfect closer, Coney Island Baby, Joseph Arthur’s voice is closer to Anthony Hegarty than it ever could be to Lou’s. And that seems fitting too.
There’s a ghostliness to this album – shadowy, serene. You imagine it being the toughest – most rewarding – album of Arthur’s career to date. And, if like me, you haven’t exactly rushed back to the Lou Reed catalogue since his death this might be the best way in. I’ve found this album a strange and lovely comfort. And it feels like the most sincere – and rewarding – tribute album I’ve ever heard. This is no slick, nasty, cynical cash-in. This is one artist honouring another, respecting the music of a friend; offering up versions of songs that clearly meant so much to him. And he’s nailed it. Knowing he could never replace the originals was the best way to approach this work. Here Joseph Arthur shows that he approaches music from both the head and the heart. That’s ultimately what he and Reed had in common.