As you’ve probably read, Michael Azerrad’s musician-on-musician criticism site The Talkhouse published its highest-profile piece yet this morning: Lou Reed reviewing Kanye West’s Yeezus. (The traffic seems to be periodically crashing the site, but if you can get it to load, the review is here.) Because the Internet is the Internet, and populated largely by people who are perpetual adolescents, the reaction has generally been a chorus of back-row-of-the-classroom giggling and picking out funny quotes to share: hey, Lou Reed likes Kanye West! Isn’t this weird and hilarious?!
This, sadly, says more about the Internet than it does about Lou Reed, because the thing is, the review is really rather good. It’s equitable, perceptive, well thought-out, insightful, and generally excellent. It’s not an epochal work of genius, and the writing isn’t amazing, but it’s a perfectly good read and has a lot of interesting things to say.
As a thought experiment, I’ve been imagining what I might do if an unknown writer I’d never used before had sent me this review as a first submission. I’d probably edit it and restructure it to be a more coherent read, rather than a stream of consciousness, and I might suggest that the writer scale down the first person. I’d also think about getting him to revisit some of the stylistic idiosyncracies, but on the whole I’d be pretty pleased, and I’d definitely be impressed with the insights into the album’s sound.
People tend to forget that Reed was a writer long before he was a musician — and when it comes to music, he knows his shit, and his observations of Yeezus are spot on. “People say this album is minimal,” Reed writes early on his review. “And yeah, it’s minimal. But the parts are maximal.” YES. That’s perfect. In three short sentences he gets to the contradictions inherent in West’s professions of love for Le Corbusier and the moments on this album that constitute a full-on sonic assault. It’s a more succinct and perceptive summation of Yeezus than anything you’ve read on Pitchfork or in Rolling Stone (or, um, on Flavorwire).
The thing is, Reed is an asshole. To journalists, anyway. He’s made a career of being unpleasant to people, and when the existence of this review was announced yesterday, you almost could sense the anticipation — the chance to get one back, to poke fun at him. Virtually every piece that has been written about this review (and there are plenty already) have taken the opportunity to mention Lulu and make a snide joke about the possibility of this presaging a Reed/West collaboration because WOULDN’T THAT BE HILARIOUS. Even the pieces that don’t overtly poke fun at Reed are more interested in marveling at the strangeness of this whole idea than anything else.
But instead of thinking about how weird it is that Lou Reed is writing about Kanye West, why not listen to what he has to say? Reed obviously appreciates and admires West’s technical skills, and well he might — whatever else you might say about Yeezus, it’s a remarkable-sounding album, and the final sentence of Reed’s review is telling: “If you like sound, listen to what he’s giving you.” Lou Reed likes sound, and he knows about sound, and he appreciates someone else who knows how to push the limits of production.
He raves about “Blood on the Leaves,” and again, everything he says is spot on: “It’s so gorgeous rhythmically, where sometimes the vocal parts are matched and sometimes they clash… it’s very poignant, but there’s nothing warm about it, sonically — it’s really electronic, and after a while, his voice and the synth are virtually the same.”
His lyrical analysis is also perceptive, especially of “New Slaves”: “[West] is trying to have it both ways — he’s the upstart but he’s got it all, so he frowns on it. Some people might say that makes him complicated, but it’s not really that complicated. He kind of wants to retain his street cred even though he got so popular. And I think he thinks people are going to think he’s become one of them — so he’s going to very great lengths to claim that he’s not.” All true.
As a bonus, there’s also some fascinating insight into Reed’s own creative process: “I have never thought of music as a challenge,” he writes. “You always figure, the audience is at least as smart as you are. You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful. And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they’ll think it’s beautiful.”
I think he’s right here — part of the temptation of criticism is to try to construct a narrative behind the art you’re addressing, to understand the artist’s motivations making it. But there’s rarely a master plan. If you’ve ever done any sort of creative endeavor yourself, you’ll know it’s often nothing more than a case of “Hey, this sounds great!” or “I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing here but I’m going with it and I think this idea might turn out to be pretty good.” Or, as Reed says, “I don’t know any musician who sits down and thinks about this. He feels it, and either it moves you too, or it doesn’t, and that’s that. You can analyze it all you want.”
This probably gets to the heart of Reed’s well-documented disdain for critics, and either way, it certainly gets to the heart of the idea behind The Talkhouse. One of the complaints often directed at music writers, and critics in general, is that you have no right to criticize art if you don’t make art yourself. This is a pretty asinine point of view — no one says you’re not allowed to criticize the carpenter who fucked up your roof if you can’t build houses yourself — but equally, musicians obviously have a certain insight into the work of their peers that outsiders lack.
This doesn’t always make for good criticism — sometimes it’s better to be standing on the outside looking in if you’re trying to evaluate something objectively. But in this case, it’s fascinating to get the opportunity to hear what one of the most innovative musicians of the 20th century has to say about one of the most innovative musicians of the 21st. But, no, fuck it, let’s just all make more Lulu jokes, eh?
(Full disclosure: the author interviewed Lou Reed once. Lou was an asshole. He always is.)