Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” is an homage to spending a perfect day with someone you love. The sentiment of the song and the way it’s expressed are why it still has resonance almost 50 years later.
The singer first describes typical activities one would do in New York, or anywhere really—drinking sangria in the park, going to the zoo and seeing a movie. The song begins in the present tense, which in combination with the earnest intimacy of his voice, creates an immediacy transporting the listener into the day. Lou Reed then summarizes how grateful he was to have spent the day with that person singing, “Oh, it’s such a perfect day/ I’m glad I spent it with you/ Oh, such a perfect day.” The music is somewhat melancholy in contrast to the lyrics and this creates tension. While you’re lost in the dreaminess of this idyllic day, there is a sense something isn’t quite right or that this day is only a small bright spot in a sea of darkness.
Sure enough, Reed follows up this positivity by singing something dark or ambiguous at best. “You just keep me hanging on” is sung twice, shifting what was a light tone to something more gloomy. What he means by “You just keep me hanging on” changes in different listenings. At times it seems he’s hanging on to her, like he can’t get enough of her. Other times, it seems she’s keeping him hanging on to life itself. Either way, the phrase implies an infatuation or desperation that is being staved off by whoever is keeping him company which makes the listener afraid what would happen should he lose her.
In the second verse, he shares that the time they spent together was so good that it made him feel like a better person temporarily forgetting how he really sees himself: “Just a perfect day/ You made/ Me forget myself/ I thought I was/ Someone else, someone good.” This is where the lyrics become inarguably dark and depressive and match the forlorn almost pleading style of singing.
Finally he sings: “You’re going to reap just what you sow” over and over in a fatalistic manner almost as quietly as in the beginning. It’s not clear what has been sown. Is it the seeds of happiness and the new self he experiences with her that he has sown or is it something negative hinted at in the darker undercurrent? Maybe it’s intentional that we’re left wondering.
What we do know is the ambiguity and complexity of the lyrics, the honesty of acknowledging darkness in lightness, the sincerity of Lou Reed’s voice and the lushness of the music together make this song authentic and timeless.