For any other artist, Lou’s final proper song cycle would’ve been a great last album
Lou Reed’s final testament is Lulu. There’s no way around that, and it’s how it should be.
It took civilization most of his life to catch up with 1975’s self-deprecating feedback bazaar Metal Machine Music (“anyone who gets to Side Four is dumber than I am”), which journeyed from being one of the most returned albums of the rock era to getting its own ensemble live treatment in 2007. So the cantankerous legend left us with another encrypted chew toy for the road, a two-disc Metallica collaboration in which most everything is wildly out of sync, especially James Hetfield bellowing “I am the table!” Maybe by the time we learn to appreciate it as music-qua-music, we’ll have developed the technology to resurrect Reed entirely, so he can deliver the last laugh in person, or in hologram or whatever.
It’s much less weird that he bowed out in 2013 leaving a sucker punch like Lulu than the fact he delivered a fairly direct rock masterpiece 13 years prior. But I guess you couldn’t predict that side of Reed either, the one that closes with a hopeful-chorded Springsteenian rocker like “Big Sky,” or patches fat blasts of brass onto “Paranoia Key of E” and “Mad.” There’s a reason Chuck Klosterman developed a whole artistic chaos theory around this man. It’s not exact math, but Reed did tend to mellow out with straightforward melodies towards the end of each decade: The Velvet Underground, New York. (My memories of The Bells and Growing Up in Public are dim and yours are, too. But soon after, he delivered The Blue Mask and some of his best, least puzzling work.)
Ecstasy is wilder than New York, though, and possibly even The Velvet Underground. For one thing, its big black-hole climax invites comparisons to “Sister Ray,” not “The Murder Mystery.” The 18-minute “Like a Possum” is just so alive, so crackling, so silly with energy and swollen electric guitar that it sounds like a Tesla coil telling dirty jokes. The big line you may remember is “I’ve got a hole in my heart the size of a truck / And it won’t be filled by a one-night fuck.” But an artist in fierce command of his poetry dominates the entire track: “The devil tried to fill me up but my down was high,” “Smoking crack with a downtown flirt / Shooting and coming ‘til it hurts,” “One likes muscles, oil and dirt / And the other likes the women with the butt that hurts.” The butt that hurts! I’d say “Possum” is every bit as vital and decadent as “Sister Ray” while mounting quite the argument (among other things) that it doesn’t need its youthful energy. It had filthy old man energy for days. Compare it to Dylan’s new JFK threnody and tell me which one has you smiling and pumped by the end. In a pre-Lulu, pre-Trump world, “Like a Possum” was considered by plenty to be a troll move. But hearing it in his aftermath confirms that Reed never sounded more alive.
We’re traveling through this album backwards, I’m sorry. Let’s go back to Ecstasy’s front end, where the punishingly upfront guitar tones of flat-drive boogie “Paranoia Key of E” and “Mystic Child,” Reed’s densest standing-in-place thrasher since “Waves of Fear” began the record every bit as sonically all-consuming. “Art-rock” tends to invoke some kind of clinical quality, and lord knows Reed has made coolly detached masterworks one after another after another. But Ecstasy is powered by l-o-v-e, as on the goofy “Turning Time Around,” as well another of its stunning peaks, “Mad.” One of Reed’s greatest extrapolations of toxic masculinity, the kinda-sexy music of “Mad” does not match its humorous-frightening tirade at a lover who caught him cheating. “You said you were out of town for the night, and I believed in you,” he accuses. “Who would think you’d find a bobby pin / It just makes me mad, makes me mad.” By the end its strangely soulful horns and screwed-up lyric get pretzeled around each other uncomfortably: “You better call 911 ‘cause I’m gonna hold you tight.” It’s as brilliant a character sketch as anything on Steely Dan’s far more detached Two Against Nature from the same year, and we know this character has been at least partly lived-in by its creator. No one in Steely Dan would ever mime head-receiving faces on their album art either.
For any other artist, Ecstasy would’ve been a great last album. It’s so meditative about the human condition, on the power dynamics of literal bondage (both “Future Farmers of America” and “White Prism” concern some abstraction of slavery), existential identity (“Modern Dance”), and the collateral damage of love (“Ecstasy,” “Tatters,” obviously “Mad”). It rocks with meteorological force and says all the things that a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and elder statesman is expected to as he looks over his shoulder at mortality ahead. And it’s possible that on some level it was conceived that way. But Lou was a lulu, and even before Metallica he had collaborations with Steve Buscemi and ANOHNI to squeeze in on his Poe tribute. So instead, it’s Reed’s last great album, and you can never take those for granted.
So let ‘er rip: “Good morning, it’s possum day / Feel like a possum in every way…”