Lou Reed turns 70 in March 2012. He was the leader of the Velvet Underground, allegedly the most influential rock band ever though they never sold that many records in their lifetime. Reed's biggest hit is a jazzy little thing called "Walk on the Wild Side" and "Perfect Day", from the same album, Transformer, has also been a nice little earner for him recently. Over the last forty years Reeds has released some records hailed as masterpieces, some scorned as pieces of crap and many more filed under mediocre and pointless. All through these years he has been an icon who eventually became an elder statesman, a bit like Iggy Pop, but with a more literate approach and perhaps with greater acceptance as a great auteur.
In 2011 he collaborated with Metallica, arguably the greatest hard rock band ever, to produce a double album of 10 songs called Lulu and based on the work of 19th century German dramatist Wedekind. This, if you will excuse the pun, is some kind of a monster.
For the record this is some of the best music Metallica has ever recorded. I am not a totally committed fan though I won a couple of albums. I still by far prefer Metallica, the black album, and have a fondness for St Anger, mostly because of the Some Kind of Monster documentary, but for the rest I like individual tracks, like "For Whom The Bell Tolls", rather than albums. The music on Lulu, however, makes for great listening as a piece of work. It is heavy, with some elegant touches of acoustic instrumentation to add the contrast and highlights to an otherwise almost unrelenting attack. Some of the music, such as the relentless stomp of "Cheat On Me", which sounds like a Metallica homage to "Waiting For The Man" or "White Light, White Heat."
Lou Reed does not quite sing and he does not quite croak out his lyrics either. I guess one can say he declaims these portentous words that read a lot like German expressionist poetry than like song lyrics and there is not much of anything that could be classified as a tune, certainly nothing one would easily be able to hum in the shower. Lou Reed is channelling Teutonic morbidity and ugliness with a vengeance.
On the back cover photograph of the five guys who made this album, they sport their respective styles of cool sunglasses. Lou's hair looks as dark as ever, despite the well-established lines on the face. He looks a bit like Keith Richards with better hair. James Hetfield and Robert Trujillo stare straight at the camera. Kirk Hamnett and Lars Ulrich are fixed on something in the distance to the photographer's left. Lou Reed has his back against the wall and does not seem to be focussing on anything in particular.
In a sense Lou Reeds has not focussed on anything in particular for quite a while now. He now wants to get literate on our collective ass and revisit some long forgotten German angst dramas. Reed has always been about telling stories and his favourite stories have been about the dissolute, depraved and divergent things in life and the people who live marginally on the margins or in the interstices and with Lulu he has a really big canvass, to mix metaphors, on which to paint his dark visions of other people's nightmares. This time, also he brings a truly great band with him, a band that has not been afraid to tackle the same subject matter albeit it in more direct, heavy fashion over the years. James Hetfield had been an unhappy bunny for the largest part of Metallica's existence. Perhaps he is older and wiser and more accepting nowadays and prefers making the monstrous music to back Reed's musings about monsters, rather than acting out his own inner monster.
The delicate touches, with acoustic strums and strings, just to add to the sinister vibe, as in the very long string passage that plays out "Junior Dad". The aim must have been epic, for it is not every day that a living legend gets his mojo back like this. I have a sense, if Lulu is not, or is not intended as, Lou Reed's last word on the subject of life and death, that his goal was to be as definitive as he could be and yet leave something for later, just in case he has the energy and creative brio for another major opus.