Monday, 19 November 2012

Lou Reed and Metallica

"Are you seriously going to write about this album now? After all this time?" I hear you ask.

Yes, I say. Due to the almost universal howl of condemnation that greeted the album upon release, it would have been hard to be as objective as I would have liked to be.

Metallica and Lou Reed have both had a long history of testing the patience of their respective fanbases. But I don't think fans of either artist were expecting this - a record blending the two extremes together in an avant garde context, over 2 cds and over 90 minutes of music in only 10 songs (the last one, "Junior Dad" towers in at over 19 minutes - longer than either act has released on their own).

What you end up with is a very tough record to listen to. And while it's no "Metal Machine Music" (Lou Reed's polarising 1975 double LP of wall-to wall sonic noise), I doubt there's been a record since that has pissed people off so violently. Almost overnight, it became an Internet Meme and the online outrage and vitriol lasted for weeks.

Part of - well, most of the problem really - is context. The audience has a lot of research to do before this record even begins to make sense.

Lou was inspired by the "Lulu" trilogy by German playwright Frank Wederkind . The plays revolve around a young female dancer who falls into poverty, violence and prostitution and ultimately lives for encounters with rich men and deviant sexuality. Lou has made a career of singing about freaks, junkies, hookers, trannies and other ostracised fringe dwellers. These plays fit in well with his previous repertoire. But really, who, aside from PhD Literature students has ever read the works of an early 20th century German avant garde playwright? And how many Metallica fans do you think are going to read Wederkind's source material to make sense of this collaboration?

Sure, Metallica have been inspired by classic literature before on songs like "One". But you didn't need to have read the novel to get the message. With "Lulu", one probably should, but from what I hear it's almost as gruesome and painful as Lou's off key groaning.

Back onto the point about context. How many people are fans of both Metallica and Lou Reed? I highly doubt there are many people whose musical tastes overlap the two artists.

Musically, Metallica swoop, lurch, stagger and stumble woozily, like an inebriated Yeti who has just been hit on one eye with a champagne bottle, behind Lou Reed's obviously deranged and deeply emotive poetry. He reminds me of a street-corner rambler, standing on a milk crate warning of the impending demise of mankind. He rants along with a super heavy barrage of noise behind him. The two don't seem to ever line up in a purely musical sense - it almost feels as though the awkward juxtaposition of the two styles was as deliberate as it sounds accidental.

If nothing else, this project is ambitious. I, for one, do not begrudge either Metallica or Lou Reed their ambitions. In fact I applaud them, because without some ambition, art will not advance and it won't develop either. But there's a difference between ambition and execution. All the ambition in the world isn't going to make this album any more listenable.

Lou Reed has even gone on to say that this record is for "literate" people. Fair enough, I suppose. However, placing the premise and the concept of your artwork above and beyond the grasp of your core fan base is not a smart move either, as it smacks of arrogance. The minute you position yourselves above your audience or make them feel like lesser people is the moment you will be cut down to size. This may go a long way to explaining why there was much backlash. Music fans don't like being made to feel stupid.

Doing something different is part of every artists nature. The problem is when you have an audience that is not prepared to - or unable to, for some reason - follow you and to understand what you are trying to achieve. Also, with such ugly subject matter serving as inspiration, it would be very difficult to come out with something that wasn't off-putting or disagreeable with many people. It's hard to see this project as a winning situation for anyone except the artists themselves and their artistic inclinations.

My view? Good on them for having a go and trying something different, for "spreading their wings" as James Hetfield put it in an interview with Dmitri Erlich in Interview Magazine. But all in all, "Lulu" kind of ends up feeling like this Lynda Benglin abstract piece: You stand back, look at it and go "ok, now that we've done it, and it exists, what the hell is it and what are we supposed to do with it?"

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