by / November 21st, 2011 /

Lou Reed & Metallica – Lulu

 1/5 Rating

(Universal)

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.

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  • I still wonder what “the view” is all about. Is it lulu’s point of view? Is it about the bad vibes of living her lifestyle?
    Also “Brandenberg Gate” Is that a metaphore for something? I like the song because of the line about nosferatu being trapped on the island of Dr. Muroe. What kind of girl would daydream about stuff like that? Someone really intresting I would think.
    I guess Lulu could be called “spoken word hard rock.”
    The artwork is great too.
    I wish they would get an author to wright a fiction novel about the character of lulu.

  • bigtom

    its not snobbery. well i guess from some peoples point of view they may scoff at the idea of two disimilar artists joining forces. I however have no problem with collaborations especially strange ones… jesus the music industry is stale these days, nothing exciting, mostly recycled babble etc. unfortunately this is not the shot the arm one might hope for. the reasons for this album being lambasted with bad reviews fans and crics alike is simple. theres no songs. no even as a full album does it make sense. its too long, theres no changes(very subtle if any) the vocals are dissonant(being nice, very nice with that!) its not musical. as fans and critics of music the thing we all need to enjoy and give due rewards to musicians is for the music they release to be musical. basically that means write music that isn’t 19 minutes chugging on the same riff(a riff that wouldn’t have made the c-side of metallicas latest album DM). this collaboration is one for the records and it should be filed under “good intentions:never to be repeated”

  • Gerry McGovern

    Interesting review. I think Lulu is one of the greatest albums I have ever heard. Junior Dad alone makes it a masterpiece. I would rate Junior Dad alongside Like A Rolling Stone. Seminal. Will be played in a 1,000 years. Lulu is absolutely musical and also contains some of the most powerful writing I have ever heard or read, anywhere in any form. I think the repetition works brilliantly. It doesn’t so much draw you in as drag you in but once inside everything is not all chaos and assault. It is elemental, though. I would put Lulu on a par with The Velvets output, which is the highest praise I could give any music. 

  • S_jibi_ghostdog

    As one of the young fans of METALLICA who haven’t herd lou reed’s name in the pst at all,I should say the album is just very normal one which has only two worthless song that you can only listin to them only for two weeks and not more….veru simple composing and all of the tracks depends to lyric and vocal much more than music….It’s very clear that the METALLICA is not the 80’s and 1991 metallica but Im very glad and Im looking forward to these changes in metallica’s point of view and their approach.because they are in the fifth decade of their life,and its not recognizable that they continue their music as they were in the past ,the thing that some band’s do like AC/DC and its like a joke to see some old man that they play like that music…….

  • well said. didn’t the critics savages ‘berlin’? And they use any excuse to have a go at metallica (although sometimes they deserve it – ‘Some kind of monster’ must be some kind of postmodern joke, right?)
    Regarding Lou Reed and his compliments of the Cowboy Junkies. CW just copied a Velvet Underground version of Sweet Jane from the 1969 live album. So, Lou might just be having a little pop at them and giving himself a sneaky compliment….

    By the way Junior Dad is one of the best songs of 2011. Far better than the original with Laurie Anderson and John Zorn. Don’t youtube it….not worth it.