Now That's What I Call Music!

In Re: Potential Marketing Strategies For Lou Reed & Metallica’s New Album Lulu.

If you’re a hardcore fan of Metallica at any stage of their career, especially if you’re adamant about the superiority of the first four albums of their catalog and equally as adamant that since then they’ve gone to shit, you will hate this album. This review means nothing to you. Take my advice and move along. [But if you love razor-sharp wit, read on! -- Ed.]

If you’re a hardcore Lou Reed fan, you questioned the logic of this pairing but were open to it, albeit reluctantly so, if for no other purpose than perverse fascination with how it would sound. You’re not open, trust me. You’ll have no pleasant experiences with this album; you won’t grow into it the way you grew into the Banana Album or even Berlin. I don’t know how much illumination this review will provide you either.

In addition, this album is not going to play very well to certain isolated demographic groups, including but not limited to: the elderly, vegetarians, children between the ages of 3 and 12, those who hydrate themselves, the employed, and those with opposable thumbs.

I also think this album will not be popular with fans of music.

That leaves only two pertinent, obviously marketable targets for the new album, Lulu, by Lou Reed & Metallica. These subsets are:
  • Dead people.
  • Insomniacs, possibly but not necessarily medicated, for whom the combination of exhaustion and stimulation has produced an inverted excretory urge, resulting in the sudden, unquantifiable and assuredly temporary predilection for hearing an over-the-hill street preacher drifting into the latter stages of Tourette’s, verbally harassing a bemused metal band who have just come back from a killing spree in which seven people and hundreds of metronomes were hurtled to their deaths from a Goodyear blimp.

I can confirm that for at least part of Saturday evening, October 22, I was in one of those two subsets. I don’t think it was the dead people, although a few more listens to Lulu and I might have died or at least gotten syphilis.

For this write-up, I am tempted to emulate my biggest journalistic hero, Roger Ebert; specifically his review for the 2009 cult horror film The Human Centipede. Ebert gave the film “no star rating.” Not zero stars, which would indicate the lowest grade – he didn’t assign it any star rating at all. “I refuse to do it,” he wrote. “The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine.”

I agree with Ebert (although if forced I would give The Human Centipede two and a half stars for execution) (or is that excretion?). The entirety of the appeal, the justification of the existence of The Human Centipede, was its premise. The Human Centipede wasn’t a story, it was a motive. Plot did not matter, although it had one. Theme didn’t matter, unless you count meta-commentary a theme. I suppose the acting was good, but in conversing about The Human Centipede, did you ever say, “Yeah, but the performances were superlative”?

I almost feel the same way about Lulu. It is this year's Sex And The City 2. It sounds like a poetry slam in which all participants are stricken with food poisoning. It has all the attention to detail as does Bob Dylan's Self-Portrait. It has a thematic device, based on a pair of plays by German playwright Frank Wedekind, who specialized in critiquing the sexual hang-ups and preventive attitudes of Victorian-era capitalist Europe. (Just like Master Of Puppets!) That doesn’t matter. Ignore it. I just put it there because you deserve full information if you need it, like on nutritional labels and insurance policies.

What matters about Lulu is that it happened and we were powerless to stop it. When first we heard about it, our jaws dropped. We then moved our eyes away from Pitchfork’s news section, gulped, and cast our gazes outside the window. In our mind’s eye, the view outside that window shifted to a bleak, sandy landscape, where half-decomposed cow skulls and gangs of flies told all the story that was there. On the far-off horizon we saw a hideous, gargantuan being: one-third animal, one-third machine and one-third rust. It was lumbering towards us, and we knew trying to run away was pointless because our backs were up against an impenetrable force field and we couldn’t go in reverse. Like the trapped, newly blobby protagonist in Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” we motionlessly watched as it inched closer, knowing that it might not arrive for months, but it would indeed arrive and would chew us into stringy, lumpy bite-sized pieces while muttering in a robotic, vaguely Bavarian accent.

Not the smoothest way to shill for pre-orders, but that’s what waiting for Lulu felt like. And now it’s here. And I’ve heard it. I’ve met fate and fate’s met me. So, you ask, how’d it go?

Well, to be honest, I first heard it late at night through a couple really small stereo computer speakers. As Lou himself has mentioned, you have to listen to Lulu on a big speaker set to get the full effect. If you first hear Lulu on what Lou calls “Radio Shack speakers,” it won’t sound the same. To me, at least during that first hearing, I thought Lulu was, if not exactly what you’d call “good,” then at least “amusing.” But I was shortchanging it. I had to listen to it in higher fidelity.

And it worked: Until you listen to Lulu through a speaker the size of a Subaru Legacy, you won’t be able to comprehend how awesomely, epically, painstakingly terrible it is.

At least on small speakers it still had hope. Maybe not that it would be good, but that we could enjoy some element of it, could restock our bellybags with that old-fashioned irony that was popular before the recession. Instead, the most we can do with Lulu is learn from it. It has gone from head-scratching collaboration, to an awful pre-release PR experience, to an after-school special on the dangers of cough syrup.

There’s this great old record biz story about Warner executives who gathered in 1979 to hear Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk for the first time. It was their first album since the mega-smash Rumours. It was a double-album featuring a stripped-down, nervy, decidedly tense sound that contained none of Rumours’ comforting slickness. The great line is, upon hearing Tusk, those Warner employees “saw their Christmas bonus checks going out the window.”*

Imagine if those same execs heard Lulu. They would have jumped out that window to chase down their bonus checks.

Look, it’s an adage as old as the hills: “Thrash bands often have a difficult time replicating the urbanized tenets of early 20th century modernist playwrights.” Ozzy used to chant that before every Sabbath show in the ‘70s. Metallica should have known better.

Judging from the lyrical content of Lulu – hey guys, news flash, Reed fancies the same imagery as the Marquis De Sade! – I’m guessing the elevator pitch of this album to their respective management teams was, “Picture the uncompromising, unsparing, free-wheeling lyrical assault of Lou Reed at his crankiest with the full-on, metallically apocalyptic sound flood of Metallica!” On paper it – well, I was gonna say it works, but I really mean it conjures interest.

But for all the insistent spillage of id, which I guess in a sense is admirable, Lulu also shows how the greatness of Reed’s and Metallica’s past work depended on at least some tacit restraint. Reed's best songs had powerful melodic elements, and Metallica used mathematics to better effect than they used anarchy. They confuse “refusal to compromise” with “good art,” or even just plain “art.”  We’re back to Ebert’s view of The Human Centipede here.

There are aspects of Lulu that I find comically endearing. Lars Ulrich’s drumming on “Pumping Blood” is one – he’s trying to channel his inner Keith Moon while Lou is speed-spewing things like “Waggle my ass like a dark prostitute/Coagulating heart!” That's just adorable. And anytime James Hetfield opens his mouth on this album is comedy gold. He’s like a wandering, bungling Pip to Reed’s drooling, short-breathed Gladys Knight. He does not sing his lines so much as he allows them to barge in.

The rest of it? You’re just going to have to wait with all the other bobbysoxers and teenyboppers lining up at midnight to get their hands on this album. But we have to get back to the marketing plan. We’ve determined that it’s not an artistic success. We’ve agreed that it’s bad enough to not just endanger Reed’s and Metallica’s future careers, but to tarnish their legacies as well. I know Reed has been drolly saying in interviews that Lulu is “the best thing I’ve ever done.” You should know he told Lester Bangs the exact same thing in 1975 about Metal Machine Music. And that he eventually retracted that statement, in his typically caustic, inexact manner that makes the questioner feel stupid.

My associates will tell you that Lulu is an album with not one shred of redeeming quality. I disagree. There are three pillars of Lulu that certain people – certain very, very bored people with loads of disposable income or file-sharing savvy – will find of value, and this is where all our marketing plans should be focused:

(A) It will cure artists’ historic struggles with self-worth. Hearing something like Lulu will reassure artists that no matter how mediocre or pedestrian they, or others, perceive their work to be, that two artists of great stature combined to make a gigantic mistake like this. This plank will especially ring true for artists who have been under constant media assault as to their talents. Rebecca Black should get this album immediately.

(B) Connected to that, this album will be of interest to professors of collaborative theology or cultural anthropology who wish to instruct their classes on the enormous range of human potential. Human know-how can result in beautiful masterworks like Street Hassle or Ride The Lightning. Yet the same people who made those milestones can make something like Lulu. We should be in awe of the fact that we, mere mortals, are able to achieve both ends of that spectrum in one lifetime. Astonishing. Affirming.

(C) Finally, I believe this album will have true appeal to people who root for the underdog. You won’t find a bigger underdog, or a bigger dog period, than Lulu. People are taking turns beating this album up in the playground, and it won’t even be out officially for another week. Perhaps you’re the type who tends to his rats, like Willard, because you don’t believe the social strata has a space for you. Perhaps you need a truly hopeless cause to champion. Well, then, maybe Lulu’s something you should embrace! Take it into your home, wrap it up in a blanket, maybe put it in a basket with some chew toys. Keep it warm. Beef up your hero complex, and maybe at the end of the day, feel that you’ve done something charitable for society, that you’ve made a little rainbow dent in the blackened skies of a cold, crusty world.

Just don’t actually play the album or you’ll want to carpet-bomb an orphanage.

*(P.S. Tusk is Fleetwood Mac's best album, one of my 30 or so favorites of all time.)

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