New Sensations is a long-overdue delight that’s all the more exciting for being completely unexpected. As someone who loved Lou Reed for his work with the Velvet Underground, and who has listened in deepening despair over the last thirteen years as Reed stumbled through one of the most self-indulgent and self-defeating solo careers in the annals of rock, I can only urge anyone who’s ever held out hope for this gifted and unpredictable artist to grab hold of this record — for my money, the most consistently winning rock & roll album Reed has had a hand in since Loaded, the Velvets’ brilliant 1970 studio farewell.
It’s not that Reed ever really lost the knack for writing the sort of vividly discursive compositions that have always characterized his greatest work — songs that, with a simple turn of phrase, imply both a moral vision and a whole personal world of feeling. Last year’s Legendary Hearts, for instance, yielded the breathtaking “Betrayed,” one of Reed’s most moving and artfully crafted efforts; but that album was subverted throughout by perversely flat, undeveloped band arrangements. By contrast, New Sensations is subtly but carefully detailed, although it features essentially the same band — rhythm aces Fernando Saunders on bass and Fred Maher of Material on drums, English session keyboardist Peter Wood (replacing the extraordinary but under-utilized guitarist Robert Quine) and, in there somewhere, electric violinist L. Shankar.
As usual with Reed, these eleven songs seem sketchy, almost tossed off at first, but they kick in immediately. The exhilarating opener, “I Love You, Suzanne” — from its cute take on the Contours’ “Do You Love Me?” rap through its irresistibly infectious strum-along arrangement and Lou’s understated but pungent guitar leads — is a hit summer single that, should RCA decide to release it as such, will not be denied. Equally arresting is “Endlessly Jealous,” in which the protagonist’s frightening struggle with sexual rage (“I feel my fingers tightening, tightening/Please don’t break her arm”) is counterbalanced by a bright, folk-rockish riff. Reed’s talent for delineating complex emotional attitudes within seemingly simple song forms has rarely been so effectively employed. Whether he’s lamenting the hard times of a violent (and possibly psychotic) old pal in the lovely, loping “My Friend George,” celebrating the dangers and illicit delights of street life in “High in the City” (his best I-love-New York opus since “Walk on the Wild Side”) or cheerily embracing his own mortality in “Fly into the Sun,” each of the songs here pans out in the end as an unpretentious gem.
To what may we attribute this fresh infusion of brio? Throughout the album, Reed seems inspired anew by simple, vintage rock & roll — note the Shirelles-style sha-la-las at the end of “Legend” and the “Gimme Some Lovin’ “-like riff that animates “Arcade” — as well as by some of his own past masterpieces. Musically, “Red Joystick,” a funny domestic-bust-up anthem, recalls the thickly fuzzed funk of “Train Round the Bend,” from Loaded, while “Legend,” thematically, at least, resembles the haunting “New Age,” from that same album.
But if Reed’s roots consciousness has always nourished his best music, it is his newfound personal equanimity that appears to be responsible for this latest artistic peak. Never before has Reed seemed so completely and joyfully human as he does on New Sensations, and the album’s title track provides its most radiant example: Here, cruising through the hills of Pennsylvania on his motorcycle, Reed reflects on his notorious past and rejoices in the straight married life he’s currently living. “I want to eradicate my negative views,” he sings, “and get rid of those people who are always on a down/It’s easy enough to tell what is wrong/But that’s not what I want to hear all night long/Some people are like human Tuinals.” He stops off in a small town for a burger and a Coke, enjoys the hillbilly music on the jukebox, meets the locals and watches a wedding, and afterward, he says, “I headed for the mountains feelin’ warm inside.” Seldom has the simple life been so appealingly portrayed.
Hang in there, Lou — the best may still be yet to come.