Lou Reed is a living legend, and rightfully so. With an impressive sphere of influence, from his art rock days with Warhol and The Velvet Underground in the 60s, to his most recent, slightly bizarre collaboration with Metallica, the man has had an impressive impact on modern music.
Reed split from The Velvet Underground in 1970 and by the time he released Transformer his career had dwindled desperately, having never achieved commercial success with The Velvets, he was hard up, and his first album, a self-titled collection of unreleased Velvet Underground tracks, had flopped miserably. Transformer was set to define his potential as a solo artist and he completely delivered.
While the lack of influence from both Warhol as project director, and fellow founding member and experimentalist John Cale does mean Transformer is musically a lot more refined, a little tamer and a lot less cool than The Velvet’s sound, this isn’t all bad. Transformer achieved the commercial success that The Velvet Underground never did and it has an orchestral sound, even sounding, on ‘Perfect Day’ and ‘Goodnight Ladies’ like a film score. Although the obvious experimentation of the likes of ‘Venus in Furs’ is absent, Reed is still playing with your expectations from a rock album.
While musically the album is interesting, Reed’s coyly clever lyrics are the star of Transformer. Casual references to shock topics like bisexuality and drug use and completely surreal pictures like ‘a dentured ocelot on a leash’ are what makes these tracks so original and exciting. While Reed’s vocal potential is also fully explored, sounding like honey on standout track ‘Walk on the Wildside’ and somehow like a raised eyebrow as he coos ‘why not get high’ in closing track, and my personal favourite, ‘Goodnight Ladies’.
Transformer may not be as ground breaking as any Velvet Underground work but it is a lyrical masterpiece and its enduring popularity, 40 years after its release speaks volumes for the brilliance of Reed’s defining solo album.