Lou Reed Scott Isler - Essay

Scott Isler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Lou Reed dialectic continues. In the past, this artist's work has zigzagged between extremes of light and darkness with pendular regularity. The felicitously titled Growing Up in Public at first seems to have dug out of the emotional depths plumbed by Street Hassle (and, to a lesser extent, The Bells)…. Public's material is medium-to-up-tempo songs, thoroughly composed from start to finish. The lyrics are the thing here, emphasized by being printed on the inner sleeve—a rare departure from the Reedian norm.

Those lyrics give the lie to the album's boppy music…. It would be too ingenuous to take the words at face value—this is a Lou Reed album, remember—but the temptation sure is strong. Reed casually tosses around the first person singular …, and refers to parents on four of the album's 11 cuts. "Families" (on The Bells) was merely an appetizer in this respect; Reed's house is rocking with domestic problems. "My Old Man" is a sordid confessional about outgrowing blind father-worship …, "Standing on Ceremony" presents familial relationships from that father's viewpoint….

In contrast, Growing Up in Public's other major theme is romance. Again, Reed's own recent marriage encourages a personal reading…. The album even follows a loose structure: boy meets girl ("How Do You Speak to an Angel"), confesses his past ("My Old Man"), ends his current relationship ("Keep Away"), scores ("So Alone"), pops the question ("Think It Over"). The viewpoint is unabashedly heterosexual; one wonders if the closing track, "Teach the Gifted Children," refers to the union's inevitable progeny. (pp. 30-1)

It's hard to recall when Reed has been this—likable (there, it's said). Growing Up in Public bubbles over with words like an amiable drunk (which persona Reed assumes on "The Power of Positive Drinking"). He writes sensitively ("Think It Over"), frankly ("Smiles"—an attack on insincerity—and the family songs), and on "So Alone" dissects the pick-up game like a leather-jacketed Woody Allen. The imbalance of perfunctory music to literary brilliance alone keeps this album out of the highest echelon of Lou Reed LPs. Perhaps Reed should go back to writing his own tunes, not that he isn't free from an occasional mixed metaphor or archaism himself. (p. 31)

Scott Isler, "Album Reviews: 'Growing Up in Public'," in Trouser Press (copyright © by Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, Inc.), Vol. 7, No. 6, July, 1980, pp. 30-1.