Review Summary: It's the last play, you don't know who your friends are, you're trying to get off the floor... it's time for big feelings
It's common to talk about Coney Island Baby by placing it in context of Lou Reed's previous album, Metal Machine Music. As with any classic self-absorbed contrarian at the height of his commercial success, Lou had basically fallen on his musical sword by releasing processed guitar noise spread out over a double album (the horror). As petulant gestures go, it was a outstandingly pyrrhic one - the album was recalled in three weeks and Lou faced the destitution he had always been fond of describing in his lyrics. Managers and roadies were suing or stealing his gear, and his options were dwindling.
The practicality of debt brought home the foolishness of his little meltdown; the kindness of RCA president Ken Glancy gave him an out. RCA sponsored some time for him in a hotel, on the proviso that he records something that humans could process. Lou responded unexpectedly - with a record of warm, simple and catchy songs. And some of them are downright schmaltzy, but in a chicken soup kind of way.
Looking beyond Metal Machine and into the vault of his common lyrical themes, Lou had always peddled a hard man's view of life - casual violence as inevitable; humour as a weapon; boredom as unavoidable; sex as a commodity; a stoic resistance to giving a ***. Through it all though, he curiously flirted with having, you know... feelings. At the time of this recording, he was romantically involved with transgender lover Rachel Humphreys, and this is almost a cliché of the muse inspired record - a document of relaxed desperation and hitherto unseen levels of tenderness.
Everything is pared back and loose - Lou deploys all the crowd pleasers on the first three tracks. "Crazy Feeling" has the gentlest guitar hook running throughout, and his backing singers chime in with berry sweetness under Lou's bourbon vocal. "Charley's Girl" has infectious "La la la las" throughout. "She's my best friend" combines these elements but tops them with a climatic second act after a gorgeous instrumental run. Everyone is lala-ing, the guitar is dancing over simple, clear basslines. Someone probably has their hand in the air and their eyes on the floor, flopping around to how great it all is. Who wouldn't want to be in drunk singalong to this?
"Kicks" is another standout, the biggest nod to Lou's darker side. He's locked in to the hypnotic patterns of the music, just talking in the pocket with his tale of a thrill seeking sociopath who kills to fill in the blank spaces of the weekend. The song is filled with the sounds of background party small talk, but occasionally a snatch of this tears through the velvety paper of the mix (it's almost like a finger accidentally rolling the volume dial up and back). It's deliciously unsettling, coupled with the spare accompaniment that speeds up insidiously, like a spider on time lapse camera adding more and more silk to a victim.
"A Gift" is a humourous, self-aware piece of balladry, and it's just great. The final gift though, is the title track. Lou tells us he just wanted to play football and make his coach proud. In the context of Reed's work, it's almost a farcical confession, but could almost make crazy sense. The song rides on starlight strums and doo-wop backing vocals. The guitar licks are all just perfectly phrased, and the simple drums become prominent exactly when it's time to show he means it. It's like the best teenage movie you've ever seen - Lou Reed walking off in a puffy football jacket, having found his perfect girl, respect from his coach, and the power to give it all up for love. It’s not going to last, but the memory sounds good on the car radio.