To say that this album has received overwhelmingly negative reviews would be perhaps the most monumental understatement of the now nearly 12 year old century (apologies, but the hyperbole is sanctioned by Lou Reed’s own pre-release assertion to the effect that, ‘It’s maybe the best thing done by anyone, ever’ – a statement which, in itself, despite how far you gauge Lou’s tongue was planted in his cheek, might go some way towards explaining the widespread derision the project has been greeted with).
Most of the opprobrium focuses from the outset on the inherent incompatibility of the participants, and then continues, self-fulfillingly, to cite spurious examples of how Reed and Metallica sound not so much as though they are not on the same planet, but not even in the same room. All tosh, of course. Lou, after all, once claimed to have invented heavy metal, and contrary to what some of these know-all detractors would have you believe, I don’t think he was talking about the largely atonal Metal Machine Music, which I agree has little to do with the genre. More likely he had in mind 1974’s Rock’n’Roll Animal and 1975’s Lou Reed Live, both products of the same December 21st, 1973 concert at Howard Stein’s Academy of Music in New York, where Dick Wagner’s and Steve Hunter’s humbucker-equipped guitars pump out the power chords and riffage in a way that has served as a template for the more melodic side of metal ever since.
Indeed, the Loutallica versions of ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘White Heat/White Light’, performed when the two first got together at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concert in 2009, owe more than a little to those mid-’70s predecessors. (It is a testimony to how great a song ‘Sweet Jane’ is that it can run the gamut of genre interpretation from these raucous arrangements to the Cowboy Junkies’ hushed campfire rendition, which Reed has called, ‘The most perfect realisation of that song I’ve ever heard.’) And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the interminable noise guitar work out ‘Like a Possum’, from 2000’s Ecstasy. Metallica, meanwhile, have more often than not cast themselves as the thinking person’s (let’s not be gender-specific about their fan base) hard rockers.
The source material is late 19th century Munich playwright Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box (the latter more well-known to contemporary audiences via G. W. Pabst’s 1929 silent film classic of the same name, starring bad girl Louise Brooks), which relate the story of a free-spirited stripper who becomes a social climber only to wind up a prostitute murdered by Jack the Ripper, whose uninhibited and amoral lifestyle bring tragedy to herself and those associated with her. So, are the results of this collaboration as dire as they say? Absolutely not (and you saw that rhetorical answer/response coming a mile off, didn’t you?). ‘Brandenberg Gate’ kicks off proceedings, with ‘small town girl’ (as James Hetfield harmonises) Lulu arriving in the big smoke and soon tiring of her factory shifts, setting the agenda with “I’m just a small town girl who wants to give it a whirl/While my looks still hold me straight”. Lou gets to establish Berlin atmospherics, which hark back to his masterpiece of that title, by name-dropping obvious cultural reference points. A further agenda is set in ‘The View’, and continued throughout, most pointedly in ‘Little Dog’ and ‘Dragon’, which is Lulu’s zeitgeisty Nietzschean rejection of the conventional value system, especially the life goals expected of ‘decent’ women: ‘There is no more time for guilt/Or second guessing/Second guessing based on feeling’.
Lyrically, BDSM is the recurring metaphor, affording Reed the opportunity for a generational update on themes first explored all those years ago on the VU’s debut Banana album, in ‘Venus in Furs’. If lines such as ‘Pumping Blood’’s “I swallow your sharpest cutter like a coloured man’s dick”, or ‘Mistress Dread’’s “I beg you to degrade me/Is there waste I could eat?”, or ‘Frustration’’s “To be dead, to have no feeling/To be dry and spermless like a girl” leave you nauseous, then this probably isn’t your idea of sexual recreation. One suspects the Marmite principle is going to apply with this one: there will be few neutrals. Disc 1 is written largely from Lulu’s perspective, while Disc 2 seems to be an angrily impotent (and impotently angry) male response, although point-of-view can be nebulously interchangeable, with first disc closer ‘Cheat On Me’ the most reflexive of the bunch. The sadist needs the masochist as much as vice versa, and Lulu’s submission is a form of dominance.
Musically, many of the songs begin with acoustic and/or orchestral tinkering before launching into full-blooded rockers. ‘Little Dog’ stays that way for its duration. As one who doesn’t listen to a whole lot of metal, I’m struck by how much, like blues, it uses the flattened fifth, or so-called Devil’s Note, for its effects. It’s not all super heavy either: ‘Iced Honey’ is straight, melodic barroom rock’n’roll, while 19 minute finale ‘Junior Dad’, a meditation on the disappointments of domesticity from the male point-of-view, shares tonal affinities with ‘Street Hassle’ and Songs For Drella’s ‘A Dream’, even if it goes on a lot longer.
Why all the hostility, then? I can only hypothesise that it stems from good old-fashioned snobbery, straight and inverted. One detects a sniffy assumption amongst the taste-making cognoscenti that poet and legendary art rocker Reed shouldn’t be demeaning himself by slumming with these raggedy, not-quite-house-trained, plebeian thrashers; while, from the other side of the fence, the notoriously conservative metal audience, who subscribe to a faith built upon simple pieties, don’t like to see their heroes getting all artily above themselves and up themselves. (One would think, however, that their worldview would be reinforced by a morality tale of a ballbreaking, never mind heartbreaking, femme fatale who comes to a bad end.) Pointing out the limitations of either case of tunnel-vision need not detain us here. One also suspects that a fair proportion of the naysayers may not have even given the discs a whirl, assuming from the outset that the whole shebang is an elaborate postmodern joke. Personally, I detect no irony in either of the collaborators’ professed admiration for the other.
Not that Lulu is perfect, mind, not by a long chalk. Quite a few tracks are too long by half, particularly on Disc 2, seeking to bludgeon the listener into submission with the kind of dominance that depends on relentlessly lengthy repetition rather than genuinely inventive intensity. Pushing 90 minutes when an hour would have sufficed, the cliché about how an average double album would have been a great single album could certainly be invoked here. Also, Reed’s lyrics, for all that they may seek to, and arguably even successfully do, épater la bourgeoisie, too often come across as half-baked, repetitious, and lack a narrative arc. These considerations aside, Lulu is, while not quite the best thing either party has ever done, certainly the best new material either has come up with in some time, and deserves more of a hearing than the critical scorn it has been met with will probably allow it to receive.