Lou Reed and Metallica: Lulu

Lou Reed & Metallica
Warner Brothers

Just when you thought Metallica might gain some ground on their way back from being hated by almost everyone you know, they come out with what may be the most disappointing album in a decade. With the release of Lulu, a collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica (or, as the media has dubbed them, Loutallica), they not only built up the excitement of the world for what could have been a phenomenal record, but they let us down harder than the last episode of Seinfeld. Except far fewer people will forgive Metallica.

But, it’s not all Metallica’s fault, nor is it Lou Reed’s. On paper, it’s one of the more ambitious and exciting projects that has actually come to fruition in years. It’s safe to say that the majority of Metallica fans, the majority of Lou Reed fans, and the majority of critics, were excited to hear it. If you’ve listened to music even once in the last 30 years, chances are you were intrigued when you heard about this album. They had a major opportunity to create a piece of music, a piece of art, that would not only transcend each of their careers, but that could equally redefine genres and make an impact on all music as we know it today. All the building blocks are there, and there is a good reason why I’ve had it on repeat for the last week. Unfortunately, this album fails to live up to its natural hype.

Lou Reed, both on his own and with the Velvet Underground, pioneered a new soundscape altogether. Granted, not everything he made was successful, but that was one of the reasons his music is so important. With all the conventions he broke and risks he took, he’s left barely a stone unturned in his career. The bottoms of many of those stones were absolutely breathtaking, and he often turned some of the simplest ideas into works of pure genius. His idea for this project could have been another one, having hatched it from two German plays written around the turn of the 20th century. Frank Wedekind’s Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, collectively known as the “Lulu” plays, are stories of a young girl’s life: her rise into fortune and successive demise, both on the hinges of sexuality. The premise alone is enough to draw some interest.

In the early 1980s (Metallica is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary), when metal was mostly considered just a way to thrash, Metallica turned it into a symphony. They flipped the world on its head and shook all the change out of its pockets. For years they pushed out seminal album after seminal album. That of course came to a crashing halt in the mid-’90s, but just like Reed, not everything they made necessarily had to be musically successful. To quote a musician who was influenced heavily by Reed and probably only slightly by Metallica, Phish’s Trey Anastasio once said it perfectly: “If you’re gonna take a risk, sometimes you’re gonna play shit.” It happens. But after the jump back into desirable music with 2008’s Death Magnetic, it finally seemed as if Metallica may have a chance to re-enter our lives as a force not to be trifled with.

If you bring each of their respective fames into play, that just opens up a whole new jar of tomato sauce. Lou Reed has fans spanning generations, adults and teenagers rooted in all sorts of different genres from folk to punk rock, art rock to jam band, and even jazz and hip hop. Meanwhile, Metallica’s fanbase can be found in all corners of the world. Their least grossing album still went double platinum in four countries including the United States, and held strong elsewhere. Obviously, there is no danger of Lulu not being high profile.

But just because the two could be considered geniuses on their own, does that mean they have to collaborate? From the moment the idea was hatched, Lulu had the opportunity to be the “We Are the World” of metal, or as if Bono and Bob Dylan came together and wrote an album based on the sonnets of William Shakespeare. At the very least, if not artistically meaningful, given all of their collective musical achievements Lulu could have at least been aurally pleasing. But this album is so terribly unlistenable that it has barely any chance of creating meaning outside the fact that two of the world’s largest acts came together to make music.

So why do I keep listening to it? I’ll tell you why: it’s the same reason you didn’t get out of your seat during Life As We Know It, and why you kept dating that girl in high school even though she embarrassed you in front of your parents and wouldn’t kiss you in public. Despite the unbearable pain, there is still something intriguing about it all.

I feel I must disclose a couple of things — on a personal level — before I continue. First, I am a rather dedicated Metallica fan. I was eight years old when The Black Album was released, and after hearing it once I immediately ran to the record store and bought everything they had ever made. My third grade teacher asked me not to listen to “Seek and Destroy” during school anymore because it was disturbing for the other kids. I hid the box set Live Sh*t: Binge and Purge under my bed so my mother wouldn’t see it. Now, it sits in her attic along with an entire box of Metallica memorabilia I can’t fit in my apartment today, but refuse to part with. As I’ve grown older, I have loved Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. There was a period of a couple of months in college where all I listened to was Loaded and their self-titled album. “Pale Blue Eyes”, in my opinion, is probably the most beautiful song ever written. To bring these two musicians together, for me, is like being able to witness Halley’s Comet.

Lulu starts out promising. “Brandenburg Gate” opens with an acoustic guitar strum and a spoken, ominous and supremely enigmatic poetry from Reed: “I would cut my legs and tits off / when I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski / in the dark of the moon.” Frame of reference is not necessary to tell you that the mystery of those lyrics is enough to keep you listening. The metal begins after another brief stanza that drags you even further into the depths of obscurity, science fiction characters, and the actors that played them. That’s when everything falls apart. James Hetfield, who stepped away from lyrical songwriting on Lulu to focus on the music with his band, chimes in with some background vocals. Unfortunately his call to the wild is not only unnecessary in the scheme of the song, but it’s poorly sung, poorly mixed, and ultimately annoying. Throughout the track, his repetitious holler of the words “small town girl” only distract from Reed’s narrative, and the same is true of the musical backing track. The parts are so mismatched it begs the question if anybody even listened to it before putting it to the public. And this theme continues for the next 90 minutes.

I will not dissect each song or each lyric any further though: it is not worth it, and there is no point to be that petty (disclaimer: I am that petty). As with any album, you have to listen to it – don’t listen to a jaded rock critic. The fact of the matter is, Metallica is musically solid throughout this record. There is an undeniable energy in their playing. And, both lyrically and vocally, Lou Reed has hardly been more himself in years (yes, that’s a compliment). They stand side by side in their individuality, and for each their own it’s good to see them in these states. But at no point does Lou Reed sound like he is singing with Metallica, and the same is true the other way around. Have you ever been to a concert where the main act brings out a special guest for a song or two, and the connection is so pure that there is a palpable feeling of excitement in the room? Except in brief, fleeting moments, that doesn’t happen here.

Side one of Lulu is a total of six songs. It has its moments. The opening sections of each song are all well put together. “Pumping Blood” and “Mistress Dread” in particular are perfectly orchestrated to lead you to believe in good music to come. Those moments last for approximately one minute each before Reed and Hetfield ultimately destroy them. If one of them isn’t singing without any care to melody or key, the other one is. It’s a trick that’s been attempted time and time again: defy the most basic conventions to create something new. There have been thousands of successful attempts at breaking rules and innovating style, but at this point isn’t it obvious to seasoned musicians that listeners enjoy melody, key, and togetherness, at least a little? You can rip a piece of paper into shreds and tape it back together, but if it’s not put together correctly, the sentences on it won’t make any sense. And it’s a simple fact that some notes sound good together, and others don’t. Insanity has been widely defined as doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results each time. Well Lou and Metallica, welcome to insanity. You’ve tried, following millions of others, and you failed. It’s not so out of the ordinary for Lou Reed to shirk opinions or purposely do the opposite of what you want him to, in fact it’s pretty much expected, but I’m a little surprised at Metallica. Even if they spent 15 of their 30 years in the music industry innovating, they were still a band that ultimately wanted to make music that would sound good to a majority of people. Meanwhile, they’ve spent the majority of the last decade being downright hated.

The second half of the record is divided into four tracks – all are longer than eight minutes, and the final two are 11:10 and 19:32, respectively. A short attention span is no match for these songs, but they are easily the most interesting of the album. By using a large string section, Metallica has brought back their element of orchestration – not only similar to their live album S&M, which featured a full symphony as their accompaniment, but also to their most ambitious albums Master of Puppets and …And Justice For All, although perhaps not as bombastic. The downfall though, is that the final nine and a half minutes of the album are similar in tone to a Scottish funeral march. There are no vocals, no change in energy, and the minimal orchestration drags on for far too long. It is more listenable that the rest of the album (in fact, it’s almost enjoyable), but it just so happens to be the only time on the record that neither is Reed singing nor are Metallica playing.

I’m almost sad as I write this. Scratch that. I am sad. There have been some great super groups that have come together, and hardly any of them have or will garner as much attention or thought as Lulu already has and will continue to. But in all honestly, it hardly matters at all to either Metallica or Lou Reed how the album sounds, or how it’s received. What matters to them is that they did it, and neither of their careers or their history will be affected in the least.

RATING 1 / 10
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists