The pairing of Nils Lofgren and Lou Reed may have seemed an unlikely one; for one thing, neither gentleman needed much help from anyone else as a songwriter. But the pair’s brief collaboration yielded a full album’s worth of songs – 13 total – which would be doled out between the artists on Lofgren’s A&M release Nils and Reed’s Arista album The Bells (both from 1979). Much later, Lofgren tapped the song stash again for Damaged Goods (1995) and Breakaway Angel (2002), but five of their joint compositions remained unreleased. Following Reed’s untimely death in 2013, Lofgren returned to their songs. Now, six years later, a new album has emerged with those final unreleased collaborations plus six more original songs. Blue for Lou is both a tribute to Lofgren’s fallen friend and a vibrant new studio album (his first of original material since 2011) from an artist with plenty to say.
For Blue for Lou, Nils and his co-producer/wife Amy assembled a tight rhythm section with Kevin McCormick on bass and Andy Newmark on drums. Naturally, the six co-written tracks, primarily with music by Lofgren and lyrics by Reed, dominate. The taut rocker “Attitude City” opens the albums, its wordless vocals subtly recalling Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” as Lofgren sings a suitably urban lyric about “the kings of the whole damn block” (“Watch the way they strut their stuff!”). When he gets to the line about “a violence that keeps moving your feet (I know some people frown on it),” one can’t help but think of Reed, who often turned darkness and ugliness into a singular kind of musical beauty. “Give” showcases Reed’s sense of humor (“Donate half your brain to science/Preserve your eyes in alcohol/Keep your balls refrigerated/You never know who needs it most”) while the hypnotic “Talk Thru the Tears” is surprisingly sympathetic, going so far as lyrically nodding to Charlie Chaplin’s sentimental classic “Smile.” Interestingly, Chaplin himself – and one of his most famous films – is paid warm homage in the breezy, bouncy “City Lights,” with sinuous tenor saxophone lines provided by guest Branford Marsalis. On the other end of the spectrum is the urgent, driving “Don’t Let Your Guard Down,” with Cindy Mizelle leading the emotive backing vocals also featuring Greg Varlotta, Gary Bruzzese, and John Willis. Mizelle shines throughout, including on the tough “Cut Him Up,” a rare piano-driven song on this set.
Lofgren’s own solo songs are of a piece with his Reed collaborations, whether the chugging “Pretty Soon” (channeling a bit of that E Street swagger and muscularity), the wistful “Too Blue to Play,” or the call to “Rock or Not.” (We know which choice Nils made.) The album’s title track is an affecting but far from maudlin, uptempo track in which the singer celebrates his friend’s “walk on the wild side, so profound and profane…King of the street corner, his words slash and lick the pain.” The same goes for another track. “Dear Heartbreaker” is dedicated to the late Tom Petty and his band, and Nils is heartfelt in his evocation of “I Won’t Back Down.” The elegiac tone continues through the final track, “Remember You,” a touching eulogy for Lofgren’s dog Groucho.
Top-notch musicianship is a given on any Nils Lofgren album, and Blue for Lou is no exception. The lean band digs into the artist’s melodic grooves with equal parts heart and bravado. Tasty, spiky guitar solos naturally abound, as on “Give,” “Blue with Lou,” and “Cut Him Up,” just to name a few. The mood might be blue, but the musical colors are actually plentiful.
Blue with Lou is not only an absorbing listen from one of rock’s national treasures but a gift to Lou Reed fans, spotlighting another side of the multi-faceted, much-missed artist. It’s a trip to “Attitude City” well worth making.