Thursday, November 10, 2005

'lulu' review

As a rock album, Lou Reed and Metallica's Lulu is a colossal failure. It is especially not a heavy metal album. In fact, it's barely even a music album in the traditional sense at all. Lulu is designed to be and works best as an avant-garde art piece. It is a piece of expression, but it is flawed. Lulu is not perfect by any standards whatsoever, but it is not meant to be. It is worth noting early on that I will assign this album no review score of any kind. There is not a clear enough standard to assign it one.

A lot of rock critics have gotten their hands on Lulu and have given it hammeringly negative scores. I am going to be staunch in clarifying that they are not wrong. Lulu is a piss-poor example of a rock album. By the standards Master of Puppets is praised and St. Anger slammed, Lulu deserves less than either of those. To summarize why, the instrumentals are loose, the music writing sounds rushed, multiple sections are outright painful to listen to, and Lou Reed simply sounds awful. These are not the only criticisms. Were this to be a rock album review, there would be more in-depth rationalizing and a great deal of nitpicks. Those four criticisms in particular would be damning. I honestly would have no choice but to give Lulu a 2/10, or one star out of five. If you're looking for a score, there it is. You've gotten your rock review and you can leave. The rest is not for you.

Those still reading this should be open-minded and definitely agreeing with me that Lulu is neither less than or more than a rock album. It does not fit the definition. As I said, some sections of Lulu are outright painful to listen to. This is important because, I believe, it is on purpose. The creators of Lulu want you to hear these sounds and they want you to feel pain. Lulu is disturbing and even offensive on several levels and to listen to it, you must be prepared. Lulu is also unconventional and virtually all expectation and preconception is unwelcome. I am trying to give you fair warning. I expect to be fought and disagreed with in this review. I expect that my opinions are in the minority. Some of you, however, will understand what I'm getting at, but disagree. Others might just nod along and tell me that I'm absolutely right. That last one isn't as much fun, honestly.

The first time listening to Lulu was painful. I heard the thirty-second clip of “The View” they put out about a month in advance of the album. It sounded awful. Lou Reed's voice is akin to a drunken grandfather who can't keep time. The down-tuned guitar riff wasn't bad, but Lou Reed totaled it. When Metallica's James Hetfield sang at the end, it just did not do it for me. Before then, I was excited about the project. I've been a Metallica fan for a while and I've liked it when they've taken new directions. I don't have qualms about them going in new directions with Load and ReLoad, and I even thought St. Anger, while a horrible album, was worth the experiment. Working with Lou Reed was just another place for Metallica to go and I hoped something good would come from it. After all, Lou is something of a legend. This is an experiment and it fails on the standards I first held for it. When the full version of “The View” was released, I was disappointed and angry.

Over time, the lyrics and full songs were put online for anyone to listen to. I found the lyrics atrocious and offensive. They're based on a pair of late nineteenth-century plays written by Frank Wedekind. Problem is, the connection is loose and the story is almost completely unintelligible. As far as I can tell, Lulu tells the story out of sequence. The third track, “Pumping Blood,” should be the end. The end of Wedekind's plays has Jack the Ripper murdering the protagonist, Lulu. This is what is described in “Pumping Blood.” Instead, it is the third of ten tracks. The lyrics are difficult to understand as far as a narrative goes. Understanding the emotion within them, however, is both easy and very difficult. Lou Reed's poetry is written (I'm guessing) in a stream of a consciousness style and presents a complex set of emotions, usually somewhere between rage and lust. There is also sorrow, a touch of joy, and even nostalgia. There is a lot to digest here.

Breaking down Lulu track-by-track seems like a disservice. It would be like breaking down a play scene-by-scene, which is simply not the way to do it. This album is meant to be listened to as a whole and in one sitting. It is not music to be listened to in the background and requires your full attention. It is best to slip on a pair of loud, noise-canceling headphones and listen to Lulu all the way through. As you do, picture the images in your head and let the emotions course through you. In this way, you are experiencing the album like a drama. Lulu is part drama, part spoken-word poetry, part art piece, and part music. You cannot see it as any one of these, but as all four. That is one problem that Lulu's detractors have. They see it as just one or two, but really, it is all of them.

It was maybe on the third time I listened to Lulu that I finally got it. It was not a sudden epiphany, but more of a gradual process. I read just about every review and article I came across about Lulu. I love Metallica, but this seemed like a betrayal. It was different and offensive. Metallica had offended me before, but this was a whole different level. Still, in interviews, each member of Metallica seemed to really believe in what they had done. They love their work. I wanted to love Lulu as well, I wanted to understand. Let me make this clear: I do not love Lulu, but I think I understand.

Lulu is an experience like no other. It is a through and through expression of human emotion, of frustration, of irrationality, of despair, of lust, of murder, of jealousy... the list really goes on. The album really pushes the envelope when it comes to making you feel these emotions. Of particular note is the track “Frustration,” which begins with a quiet, high-pitched sound I really can't describe. There's what sounds like muttering of some kind. It's seriously frustrating to listen to. Finally, Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield's guitars come out in full metal distortion and play some seriously hard riffs, even by their well-established standards. Periodically it all stops and Lou jumps in to quip off some of his ridiculous lines and Lars Ulrich does a few mini-solos on his drums. The guitars kick back in and it repeats. There are two emotions well-represented here: anger and frustration. If that was the goal, then the goal was met. The lyrics on “Frustration” are, like the rest of the poetry, confusing and frankly dumb, including lines such as “To be dry and spermless like a girl.” It is unfair of me to quote this line out of context, but really, context does it no service. Ultimately, “Frustration” is about jealousy, which was a common thread in Wedekind's plays. I firmly believe that the intended emotion was achieved in “Frustration” and I would call it a triumph.

“Frustration” is a perfect example to go into for just about the whole album. It is not really a pleasant listening experience. In parts, it's quite the opposite. When you listen to a regular rock album, or just any album in your music collection, you're listening for a sound you like. Lulu, in many cases, is not that. If you're like me, it's something you haven't experienced before. There's almost a degree of musical masochism here. You are, to a degree, being put through pain. Movies, plays, and books all do this. Why not music? I don't think this is anything new, but some don't understand the intent here. They mistake this pain as ineptitude or even as a mistake, but really it isn't.

Listening to Lulu has given me a new perspective on music as a whole. It's not a perspective I can really apply to much other music, since there is very little like Lulu. And, thing is, I'm not going to go out looking for like Lulu. I frankly did not find the experience to be one I'd like to repeat. I'll probably listen to Lulu again at some point, or I'll probably listen to the tracks I liked. I found “Cheat On Me,” “Frustration,” “Dragon,” and “Junior Dad” to be, in part, worth listening to. Problem is, they are not intended to be listened to on their own. “Cheat On Me” gets boring and is not worth its eleven-and-a-half minute track. “Frustration” is, as I said, frustrating. “Dragon” is repetitive, overlong, and the lyrics are absolutely repugnant (“the taste of your vulva and everything on it,” among other quotes), and “Junior Dad” goes on for almost twenty minutes. In other words, while Lulu has unexpected value, it has none outside of what I've been through above.

There are parts of Lulu that do not work at all, not even on the artsy level. Lou Reed's vocals are painful to listen to even when that is not the intention. He sounds like he's drunk and his sixty-nine years really show. The man cannot sing. Other times, tracks are overly long and you'll find yourself getting impatient with the material. When this is intentional, you'll forgive it, but there are times, particularly on tracks like “Dragon” or “Mistress Dread” where it's just plain excessive and probably not what they had in mind. If this were a painting in a museum, it'd be one with mistakes that detract from the work.

I've said before that the poetry is not good. It isn't. It's written in what's most likely a stream-of-consciousness style where Lou Reed would simply express whatever emotion he happened to be feeling. It comes out in the strangest of ways and often doesn't make sense. I could spend a great deal of time extrapolating meaning out of each and every one of the individual tracks on the album. Please, don't mistake that necessarily for depth. I don't want to get into it, but what is depth? It is very often that people see profundity where there is actually vagueness or even confusion. Lulu, for the most part, is not deep. It is vulgar and emotional, but doesn't provoke much real thought. To say again, on an emotional level, Lulu is complex. That is where it succeeds, not on a level of though-provoking depth. One could argue that cerebrality is not the point and the emotional expression is, but Lulu can be just plain stupid. That's a fault no matter what the point.

The narrative in Lulu is extremely difficult to follow. I mean this in a different way from what I meant before in my remarks concerning the story. In “The View,” both Lou Reed and James Hetfield have singing parts. Both refer to themselves in the first person, but it is completely unclear who they are representing. Is Lou talking about James' character, who insists that he is, “the table,” “the root,” and “the progress,” among other things. It can actually be laughable at times. As said, the narrative is an emotional one not a traditional plot or character-based one. It's strange, but honestly works, despite its inherent confusion and frustration.

The final track is worth note. It is a nearly twenty-minute long track called “Junior Dad.” While the lyrics are, again, lacking and I'm still dubious as to its meaning, “Junior Dad” is different from the rest. It's actually very pleasant to listen to. Lou Reed's spoken word is soothing a strange way. When the singing is over, we're given a somber, string-drive drone, which is relaxing and causes the listener to reflect on what he's just heard. In this reflection, Lulu seems to make sense. The journey to get to this point seems worthwhile. It's an interesting effect and one worth nothing. “Junior Dad,” in light of the whole album, just makes sense. All of the elements, save the lyrics, just work here. A lot of great songs have terrible lyrics, so I'm not even going to levy that as a strong complaint. “Junior Dad” is a win. I must again stress though, that it is a part of a complete package and probably won't work for anyone as a standalone track.

Most people, I don't think, will ever truly understand Lulu. It's a unique work, most aptly described as a concept album, but that doesn't even quite fit it. Lulu requires a nearly completely unique mindset to grasp what it is attempting to accomplish. This mindset first requires a completely open mind, one without expectation whatsoever. The curve balls Lulu throws at you will decimate all preconception and will throw you off, marring your ability to appreciate the album. Notice I said “appreciate,” not necessarily enjoy. This album is worth listening to for the one-of-a-kind experience or just to take in a different kind of art.

An apt comparison for Lulu, in a lot of ways, is to postmodern art, which is often ugly or unappealing. Nevertheless, it is expression with a point. Lulu is intended as art, as expression. It is not perfect art, there is a lot which should have been improved and a lot which probably should have been deleted outright. There is something more Lulu could and should have been. It's unfortunate, it truly is.

To make it abundantly clear, this is a negative review. I understand and I can appreciate Lulu, but I do not like it. It is vulgar, ugly, and sorely lacking. Is this album a failure? No one can say, honestly. The test of art is that of time. If we're still talking about Lulu ten years from now, then maybe it has accomplished its goal. Many works of true art are misunderstood, criticized, and even despised on their initial release. Perhaps this is the case with Lulu. Perhaps in ten years, people will look back on this record and change their minds. I can't say whether or not this will be the case. We will just have to wait and see.