When Lou Reed and Metallica announced earlier this year that they were recording an album together, many people were puzzled. Some were downright incredulous. How could Metallica record an album with a 69-year-old avant-garde poet who had been all but forgotten by the music industry?
Actually, Reed and Metallica are not that far apart on the musical spectrum. Their finest musical achievements, from Reed’s trail-blazing work with the Velvet Underground in the ‘60s and his solo albums “Transformer” and “Berlin” to Metallica’s ferocious demonstrations of thrash metal on 1984’s “Ride the Lightning” and 1986’s “Master of Puppets,” all dealt with issues of alienation, outsiders looking for some kind of emotional or spiritual release through drugs, sex, etc. Both artists also like to experiment, not afraid to alienate their most dedicated fans in pursuit of their art.
Collaborations can be tricky though, with both artists having to figure out how to combine their sound with their partner and create a harmonious product. It’s a huge gamble, and this collaboration, “Lulu,” does not pay off at all. Reed and Metallica are definitely fearless performers, who wanted to create something unique, and they have created one of the most bizarre and audacious rock albums in years, but it is also one of the worst. It is an irritating, pretentious but ultimately hollow mash-up of heavy metal and lyrical “poetry” that sounds like it was written by a high school freshman who just listened to George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” routine for the first time.
There are main reasons why “Lulu” does not work. The first one is that this does not feel like a true musical collaboration. Instead of finding a middle ground where their two distinct sounds converge, Reed and Metallica just do what they always do musically. Metallica plays heavy, intense thrash metal, and Reed half-talks/half-sings random lyrics. These musical styles do not mesh in any way, shape or form. It does not even sound like they are in the same recording studio on any of these songs.
Collaborations require some negotiating to create a successful melding of styles. “Raising Sand,” the album Robert Plant and Allison Krauss made together in 2007, is an excellent example of this. “Lulu” sounds like it was put together in a lab by a committee, and whoever was running that lab was deluded enough to think this was music suitable for public consumption.
The second major problem with “Lulu” is that there are no songs on this album. Not a single one. Each song consists of Metallica playing a riff-driven piece of heavy metal while Reed, in his weathered voice that is no longer able to carry a melody, delivers profane, nonsensical “lyrics” that are supposedly based on a series of plays written by German writer Frank Wedekind about a prostitute named Lulu. Reed is considered to be one of the rock’s greatest songwriters, but this album does not testify to that. The words are random phrases that deal with self-mutilation, sexual obsession and some blunt references to bodily fluids and sexual acts. “The View,” the album’s first single, an odd phrase to use on an album without songs, is an excellent example of this, with a lackluster guitar riff and Metallica lead singer James Hetfield yelling the words “I am the table” without a trace of self-awareness, which may make listeners burst out in laughter. It would be more tolerable if these pieces were concise songs, but several tracks on “Lulu” break the 10-minute mark, the worst offender being the album’s closer “Junior Dad.” Reed whispers more nonsense over some boring acoustic guitar playing that goes on for 19 punishing minutes.
Reed is lost at sea the whole time, but there are moments on this album where Metallica does sound musically engaged. The death march on “Pumping Blood,” and the guitar firestorm on “Dragon” show off some of their most inspired musical craftsmanship in nearly a decade. This is why it is such a tragedy that Reed sabotages the whole enterprise. If all of the singing were erased, a fairly solid instrumental Metallica album would remain.
There are bound to be some critics who will argue that “Lulu” is a misunderstood masterpiece, and that any scorn is born out of skewed expectations. They could be right; maybe time will look kindly on this album. But for right now, “Lulu” is a disastrous concoction, a prime example of artistic ambition gone haywire.