Tuesday, May 25, 2021

A deep dive into Lou Reed's catalog: The stinkers

2011: Reed as frontman for Metallica

Of the 22 studio albums Lou Reed released in his four-decade career as a solo artist, four of them I rate as absolute stinkers -- albums I feel have no value whatsoever to a serious listener. These records might be worth your time if you're the curious type and have a burning desire to hear anything if just once. But if you hope to find some kind of treasure in your exploration, you're probably not going to find anything worthwhile in this basket.

On first glance, four out of 22 might seem like a lot. By the numbers, that would mean that I am telling you that nearly one of every five Lou Reed albums is complete garbage -- a fairly high whiff rate by the numbers. But there is a caveat: Three of these four were the last three albums of his life, recorded long after his well ran dry of artistic inspiration. So factoring that into the equation, that leaves only one stinker out of 19, a pretty good track record if you ask me.

So let's wrap this up, with Nos. 19-22 of my rankings of Lou Reed studio albums:

No. 19. Lulu (credited as Lou Reed and Metallica, October 2011):
The idea for this was cooked up when Reed and Metallica performed together at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert in 2009. I'll concede that maybe the idea wasn't a bad one. But there is no question the execution was awful. This double album, released almost exactly two years before Reed died, was not received well by many people. Lou Reed fans hated it. Metallica fans hated it. Reed said he got death threats from Metallica fans over this record. Reed also said that after Lulu, "I don't have any fans left. ... Who cares? I'm essentially in this for the fun of it." If you like the sound of a hoarse, atonal Reed spitting out violently ugly lyrics over Metallica's disassociative heavy-metal jamming, then you might like this record. Some people did, allegedly. Reed's widow, Laurie Anderson, while professing her reservations about this album at his posthumous Hall of Fame induction in 2015, said David Bowie told her Lulu was "Lou's greatest work. ... His masterpiece." As far as I know, Bowie, who died a few months after that, never confirmed nor denied that he said that. There are a couple or three moments in this album where you hear some passably competent heavy-metal music, which is why I rate this higher than the bottom three. But we're talking needles and haystacks here. It's not worth the trouble to shovel through the shit.

No. 20. Hudson River Wind Meditations (April 2007):
Reed got sober sometime around 1980, becoming a dedicated practitioner of meditation techniques for the rest of his life. He spent more than a quarter-century assimilating ambient sounds as part of his daily routine, eventually becoming inspired to make his own new-age record. That's what this is. I heard part of this a few years ago, but I haven't been able to find it on any streaming services to give it another go. So I never have studied this album. But from what I remember, it's wind chimes and babbling brooks and synthesizers and such. This might help you with your tai chi -- if you can find it. But its not designed for dedicated music appreciation.

No. 21. The Raven (January 2003):
This was Reed's first foray into late-career bucket-list explorations. The Raven is a collection of songs inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's writings -- a followup to POEtry, Reed's 2000 collaboration with playwright Robert Wilson. Reed wrote all the music and lyrics for this. He sings a few of the songs. Badly. His voice, never golden, is completely shot by this point. It's out of tune, out of sync, pretty cringeworthy for the most part. His touring band -- guitarist Mike Rathke, bassist Fernando Saunders, cellist Jane Scarpantoni, drummer Tony Smith -- is here and sounds fine given the mostly goofy material. What's really bad, though, is the over-the-top use of guest vocalists such as Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Amanda Plummer. We do hear from people like Bowie, Anderson, Antony Hegarty, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Kate & Anna McGarrigle. But these songs are mostly embarrassingly bad.

No. 22. Metal Machine Music (July 1975):
LOL. Reed tried hard through the latter years of his career, but he never again reached the intentional awfulness of the infamous Metal Machine Music, his fifth album and the one that damned near destroyed his career. For whatever reason, Reed decided as people were still trying to figure out what the hell he really was all about that 65 minutes of squealing, tuneless, rhythm-free electronic beeps and boops and drones would be a good flag to plant. At this point, Reed was still pissed about the mass rejection of Berlin, which he loved, and the success of Sally Can't Dance, which he hated. And he waved his contract in the faces of RCA Records executives to force them to release this thing. Most people, including influential critic Lester Bangs, interpreted Metal Machine Music as Reed giving the finger to his record company, his management, his critics, his fans, everyone within earshot. Reed denied that, maintaining until the day he died that MMM was a serious artistic statement. He did come back to it decades later with Lou Reed's Metal Machine Trio, which performed a few shows and released a live album, The Creation of the Universe, in 2008. (Don't bother with that one, either.) The best thing about Metal Machine Music is the obtuse, vengeful essay Reed wrote for the liner notes in which he claimed he invented heavy metal and famously closed with the line "My week beats your year." It's that classic Rock 'n' Roll Animal-era Lou Reed attitude that might be interesting to read about but is torturous to listen to. 

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