Lou Reed & Metallica – Lulu Review
Posted by Chad Nevett on 11.04.2011
A rock ‘n’ roll legend teams with the biggest heavy metal band of all time to produce an album almost universally hated. But, what did 411’s Chad Nevett think about Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu? Read the review and find out!
There were probably a small number of people genuinely excited to hear an album by Lou Reed and Metallica. Lou Reed fans would tolerate Metallica’s presence and Metallica fans would tolerate Lou Reed’s presence, but this wasn’t the ideal new album as far as each’s fans were concerned. Except, when you think about it, the announcement of Lulu wasn’t exactly a surprise. Looking past the superficial differences between the two parties, both Reed and Metallica have had careers of subverting expectations and alienating their fans, and Lulu is the place where two careers of decisions that seem to actively strive to confuse and enrage people meet. Reed has settled into the role of the crazy old man of rock that comes out from time to time to either bestow a blessing on a new band (appearing on “Tranquilize” with the Killers) or to release an album no one really expected or wanted (Hudson River Wind Meditations), while Metallica has gone through several transformations in their career with the rise of their commercial success, cutting their hair, performing with a symphony, suing their fans, sharing their therapy on film, and, seemingly, returning to their roots to a degree with 2008’s Death Magnetic. It was a 2009 performance together at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th Anniversary Concert that first brought the two parties together and things clicked for them, leading to talks of an album of covers of various songs from Reed’s catalogue, and, then, fleshing out the demos Reed had prepared for a theatrical production of late nineteenth/early twentieth century German playwright Frank Wedekind’s two “Lulu” plays. Lyrics and vague ideas of musical direction in hand, Reed and Metallica entered the studio earlier this year, producing an album that no one asked for and, seemingly, everyone hates.
I love Lulu. I had read some of the early reviews panning it and was a little concerned, even during the first listen where Lou Reed’s vocals never seemed to mesh with Metallica’s music. But, I listened again and liked it more. The third listen was when I fell in love with the album for its passion and its disconnect and the way it builds, not just in the songs, but throughout the whole album until it collapses in on itself with the beautiful elongated strings on “Junior Dad.” It’s exactly what you’d expect from a collaboration between Reed and Metallica; that is, it’s not for everyone and it requires the listener to be a little patient and actually try a little.
There’s a reason why Lou Reed’s name comes first. Throughout his career, he’s moved from project to project, from backing band to backing band. Many of those projects featured collaborators that brought a lot to the table, co-writing songs and helping Reed to fully realize his vision. That’s what Metallica does on Lulu. They’re Lou Reed’s backing band that gets billing because they’re Metallica. This is a Lou Reed album first and foremost and expecting anything different is only going to lead to disappointment. Metallica fans will find some comfort in backing tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in some of the band’s early work if some long, masturbatory guitar solos were thrown in. James Hetfield only contributes vocals on four songs, usually in a backing fashion, repeating the same phrase again and again like “Small town girl” on “Brandenburg Gate.” Only “The View” features him singing more than a few words; vocally, this is Lou Reed’s show.
Reed’s vocals are put atop Metallica’s music in a manner that resembles poetry spoken over music more than anything at first. This approach is one that he’s even fallen into while performing his own songs, though not to this degree. The disconnect between Reed’s harsh vocals and Metallica’s thundering playing manages to enhance the emotional experience of the songs. On “Mistress Dread,” Metallica plays harder and faster than they have in a long time and Reed’s vocals are slower and more dragged out than usual. Heading in two directions at once, the result is disorienting at first and, then, Reed slowly speeds up his vocal delivery and Metallica pulls back, reversing everything in an interesting fashion until Metallica kicks it into high gear again, driving the song to a monstrous finish of false ends.
The first disc of Lulu contains shorter songs and all of Hetfield’s vocal contributions. If one of the discs were to be described as ‘commercial,’ it would be the first disc. Hetfield’s vocals are a stabilizing force that almost gives the song a traditional structure, particularly on “Cheat on Me,” an eleven-minute powerhouse. The build throughout that song is stunning, beginning quietly and growing in volume and intensity until Reed and Hetfield are practically screaming over one another while the backing music screams all by itself. It’s almost the reverse of the album’s ender, “Junior Dad,” making it a smart song to end the first disc.
The first single, “The View” contains an apocalyptic riff that carries the song forward. Reed’s singing is sparse at first, but his cries become affecting, while Hetfield’s vocals make for an interesting juxtaposition. In some ways, Reed’s vocals seem a perfect match for Metallica’s ‘death metal’ approach to much of this album. This is music for the end of the world.
Though the songs are based around the Wedekind plays, there is no cohesive narrative running throughout Lulu. Songs revolve around sex and violence with lyrics that recall many of Reed’s earlier work like “Venus in Furs,” Berlin, and “The Blue Mask.” “Little Dog” and “Mistress Dread” deal with these ideas most explicitly even if the former is done through the obvious S&M metaphor. Reed’s lyrics are direct and ‘shocking’ in places to a laughable degree, but his delivery lend them emotional weight and power. Reed’s voice is so filled with character. It comes off as a drone at first and, upon repeat listenings, the emotion and passion comes through. The quiet chill of “Little Dog” is similar to the flat delivery on “Caroline Says II,” for example.
One of the best moments is Reed following a line “Pumping Blood” with the command, “Come on, James,” presumably an impromptu shout to Hetfield. This is Lou Reed and Metallica having the times of their lives and producing an album that they want to solely because they want to. It’s not a catchy collection of songs you’ll find yourself singing later (though I did a couple of times), but it’s powerful and affecting, and well worth any effort put in to understand it.
The 411: Challenging, demanding, unconventional, and audacious, Lulu is the album no one asked for and everyone should hear. One of the year’s best.