Joseph Arthur was well aware of the expectations and potential pitfalls of recording a Lou Reed tribute album. It wasn't even his idea. When it was pitched to him by Vanguard A&R man Bill Bentley in November 2013, mere weeks after Reed's death, he only very reluctantly agreed to consider the idea. Reed had befriended the New York-based Arthur in the mid-'90s just as his career was beginning to blossom with release of his 1997 debut on Peter Gabriel's Real World label (Reed even took him out for ice cream after signing to celebrate the feat). Sixteen years and ten albums later, a tour-hardened veteran Arthur returned home after weeks on the road to attend his friend's final tribute show at the Apollo Theater and decided to try out a few songs at his home studio using only acoustic guitar and piano. Taking a simplistic approach to Reed's songs was the only way to make this album work. Reed's best music was subtle in that way with phrases and arrangements boiled down to their minimalist essence. He often made huge statements with his understatement and unwavering attitude. Bravely taking on some of the best-known cuts from Reed's canon, Arthur strips songs like "Heroin," "Satellite of Love," and even "Walk on the Wild Side" down, interpreting them honestly and organically with his expressive, embattled voice. There is obvious respect and reverence for the material and for Reed's style, but Arthur is also his own artist with a great body of work and years of touring to his credit. He manages to get lost in these familiar songs without becoming too subservient to their original versions or feeling the need to veer too far from them in order to make his statement. His versions of "Sword of Damocles," "Coney Island Baby," and "Dirty Blvd." are all tactfully handled, receiving more of a wistful reinterpretation than a showboating reinvention. A less experienced artist might not have been so reserved, but the veteran Arthur knows how to treat a song, whether it be his own material or something as iconic as the Velvet Underground's "Stephanie Says." As a tribute, Lou is deftly made and should please, or at the very least fail to offend, Lou Reed fans. As a Joseph Arthur album, it's a nice comedown from 2013's massive, lushly produced double album The Ballad of Boogie Christ. It has the organic purity of an acoustic (American Recordings-era) Rick Rubin production, but sonically falls more in line with something like Robyn Hitchcock's Eye, with its rough edges, beautifully rickety harmonies, and homemade charm. It has the shared benefit of coming across as both an honestly intended tribute to an artistic mentor as well as another well-made record in Arthur's impressive catalog.
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AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger