Lou's answer to Environments has certainly raised consciousness in both the journalistic and business communities. Though it is a blatant rip-off, it is not—philistine cavils to the contrary—totally unlistenable. But for white noise I'll still take "Sister Ray." C+—Robert Christgau, reviewing Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, 1975
Metal Machine Music. Those three words alone suffice to completely destroy Chuck Klosterman's theory that if America still had a functional music industry, the Metallica/Lou Reed collaboration that Klosterman finds "totally unlistenable" would not exist. (To be fair, before anyone jumps down my throat and says "The 'totally unlistenable' part is in the subhead, and maybe Klosterman didn't write that!", Klosterman's own characterization of the music in the review itself contains the speculation that the work "might be a successful simulation of how it feels to develop schizophrenia while suffering from a migraine, although slightly less melodic.") But given that Klosterman was barely in kindergarten when MMM came out, and that he likes to wear his ahistorical approach to critical analysis on his sleeve (the extent of his curiosity about the sources of the Reed/Metallica work can be gleaned by his note "Lulu is based on theatrical German expressionism from the early 20th century") it would be cruel to overemphasize the fact that his theory has no actual legs. And anyway, that's neither here nor there. Klosterman's not alone in playing the "unlistenable" card with respect to Lulu; the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot not only drops the "u" word but moans that Lulu "wallows in a tarpit of ugliness." These citations are just the tip of an iceberg that has all manner of bearded not-so-bright young things trying to decide whether to snicker or recoil in abject horror from the double CD.
Which I have to admit I kind of like. A good deal. And I'm kind of amused by the language its detractors have been using to attack it, because they all kind of sound like my mom and her friends did back in the early '70s when I had the temerity to blast The Velvet Underground and Nico from my portable fold-out stereo in my Dumont, N.J. backyard during a barbecue one summer night. "Where's the melody?" "How can you listen to that without getting a headache?" "Sounds like Chinese funeral music!" (That last was the reaction to "Venus In Furs.") That was a fun experiment. So you can imagine how amused I am to witness people whose main mission in life is to provide some sort of intellectual rationale/apologia for the likes of The Black-Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" getting into just such a snit over three electric guitars, bass, drums, and an admittedly flat vocalist. Now as my poor wife will be happy to tell you, I eat "unlistenable" for breakfast. While I like a nice Stanley Turrentine/Astrud Gilberto collaboration as much, if not more, than the next guy, I am also apt, of an afternoon, to listen to Otomo Yoshihide's Modulation With 2 Electric Guitars and 2 Amplifiers at what is commonly referred to as a "punishing" volume.
But really, while my standard might be somewhat different from the average, I don't find Lulu all that tough a sit. It isn't as if it's just a lot of unmodulated clamor. While a fair amount of it does consist of loud guitar vamps/riffs under Lou declaiming rather, um, vivid lyrics, there's a fair amount of dynamic range, varied instrumentation, pianissimo passages, all that stuff. In other words, its isn't nearly a musically monolithic as its detractors might lead one to believe, and the aggressive stuff is pretty convincing; I can do ab crunches quite efficiently to it. And honestly, out of the ten tracks spread over two CDs, there are at least three that could qualify as "real" "rock" "songs," not art songs or experiments or what have you. The whole thing leads me to wonder, have the people bitching about this record ever heard any Lou Reed records? Not the recent, oft-highfalutin, frequently derided stuff like Ecstasy and The Raven (two records I was pleasantly surprised to see highly rated by Christgau, who's second only to Lester Bangs, I think, as the greatest and most perceptive of Lou skeptics/fans), but, like, you know, Street Hassle, or The Blue Mask, or maybe "Lady Godiva's Operation" on The Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat? Because I'm thinking maybe a little familiarity with that material mighta helped them not have an aneurysm at the opening lines of the opening track, the bit about cutting tits off. Which brings us to the other thing a lot of people are having problems with, which is that Reed, and sometimes even Metallica's own James Hetfield, often sing in first person from the perspective of a young woman—the Lulu of the album's title, I'd reckon—and what's up with that? Again, I don't expect Chuck Klosterman to drop much science pertaining to art song tradition/convention and/or Frank Wedekind, and to be completely honest my own expertise on either of these topics is a stitch limited, but again, even taking that/him out of the equation, it's hardly as if this strategy is outrageously unprecedented. Granted, the artists do themselves not-so-much of a favor by deeming to explain what they're up to with a small-type line in the behind-the-discs card notes reading "All songs on this album are based on songs written by Lou Reed for the play Lulu." But given the near-hysteria of the hostility greeting the album from those who are maybe in a position to appreciate and even shed some light on the context of its creation and theme, maybe the artists figured they were in a kind of fuck-it, let's-just-let-it-drop situation anyway. That said, I haven't listened to it quite enough to weigh in on whether it "works" as some kinda unified thingamajug, but a somewhat informed combination of my gut, ears, brain, and history with Mr. Reed say, no, it's not at all unlistenable, and yes, it may indeed be very good indeed, somewhere between Street Hassle Good and The Blue Mask Good. But Klosterman's right, it isn't very melodic. But you know what is? Sinatra/Jobim. So listen to that, why dontcha?