I thought it would be hard to choose my favorite of Reed's solo albums, after all, New York, Magic and Loss, Set The Twilight Reeling, Street Hassle, and Coney Island Baby are all "essential" albums that everyone should have in their collections, but it's Berlin that I suppose I have the strongest emotional connection to. Not only do I believe it's probably Reed's strongest album (with or without the Velvets), but I discovered the album during a time that straddled two awful and destructive relationships and Berlin got me through some very long nights.
Reed's lyrics were always very influenced by literature, particularly by the works of his old college professor, Delmore Schwartz (who seems to have a heavy influence on Berlin especially), Hubert Selby Jr, and William Burroughs. Berlin is Reed's strongest literary statement, particularly since it's a rock opera. Although, a few of songs were Velvets songs and Caroline Says is a rewrite of their Stephanie Says, so it's more like a collection of songs that fit together thematically and suggest a story, but it works.
Berlin is about a doomed marriage full of drug addiction, domestic abuse, and eventually suicide. Reed had said he was also inspired by the city of Berlin (Cold War era, before the Wall came down), he loved the idea of a divided city. According to Victor Bockris's book Transformer; The Lou Reed Story, Reed had told former-Velvet Nico that he'd written Berlin for her and let her come live with him, only to treat her horribly. (To me that book is pretty suspect, I'm sure a lot of it is true, but Bockris comes across so catty and vindictive for most of the story, not even trying to hide his open hatred for Reed-fun read regardless, mostly for how nasty it is.) Berlin, seems to be set in an earlier era, which is sometimes suggested by the music more than the lyrics, but none of the songs really scream 1970s; like the opening/title track-full of disconnected voices that begin to sing Happy Birthday accompanied by a big band before fading into the actual song Berlin, a piano ballad, seems to suggest the 1930s or 40s. The closest to 70s glam rock (for which he'd been gaining new found stardom with a connection to David Bowie) Berlin ever approaches is the song How Do You Think It Feels, a song about the lows of shooting speed. The orchestral arrangements also make Berlin stand out from the rest of Reed's discography; it's the biggest, lushest, album he ever recorded. (But as a fan of his guitar playing, I can't help but wonder if Berlin wouldn't have been better served if Reed had approached it as more of a rock album.)
I think it being an album out of time has helped Berlin age better than Transformer, which feels trapped by it's era. It was certainly panned on release and didn't sell well, only to be embraced three decades later by the same rock magazines that shat on it. It's been called the most depressing album ever recorded, which is pure hyperbole. It's also the closest Reed ever came to fulfilling his desire to write albums that were like Dosteovsky novels.
For me personally, when I found the album I was trying to break away from one girl while pursuing another that would just lead me down another path of heartbreak. Sad Song, the album closer, seemed to especially speak to directly to my situation with the first; "I'm going to stop wasting my time, someone else would have broken both of her arms..." It didn't help that I had fallen into deep depression at this time and started abusing alcohol and over the counter stimulants and hit the beginning of a six year period where I couldn't write, either. Through the next several years I found comfort in Reed's music and Berlin especially was very close to my heart. As a writer Reed probably influenced me as much as any novelist and his music was certainly a good drinking buddy.
How Do You Think It Feels
Caroline Says II
Men of Good Fortune