I feel the need to clarify this immediately: I can’t get enough of Lulu, the hard rock psychodrama by Lou Reed and Metallica. I love the album, all eighty-seven minutes of it, and have been listening to it frequently since its release. I’ve also been following the reaction to it, which has been largely negative to say the least. While there have been a few positive reviews, it seems like some critics have been engaging in a competition to see who can out-snark one another as they tear the album apart.
In 2009, at the 25th anniversary concerts for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Lou Reed and Metallica teamed up to perform a couple of Velvet Underground classics. They had such a great time together, the idea formed for a more formal collaboration. Originally the plan was for Metallica to back up Reed on an album’s worth of his previously released material. By the time the project was coming together, Reed suggested the more ambitious approach of tackling new songs.
Lulu’s ten songs are based on the music Reed wrote for Robert Wilson’s recent stage production, Lulu, itself based on two plays by Frank Wedekind, Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904). The finished album, recorded quickly, consists of mostly long, churning, heavy jams capped by Reed’s verbose lyrics. Throughout the album, Reed often assumes the role of Lulu, a nymphomaniac dancer who is psychologically and sexually abused throughout a series of relationships, including an encounter with Jack the Ripper. At least that’s what I’ve gathered. I’ve not read the plays, nor seen the recent Wilson adaptation. And as far as narrative cohesion is concerned, the album is kind of muddled.
But the strength of the words is in their graphic, disturbing, and self-loathing imagery. There aren’t many lighthearted moments on Lulu, which is made clear by titles such as “Pumping Blood,” “Mistress Dread,” and “Frustration.” There is a very downbeat sense of despair that runs through most of the album. Among the bleakest moments is the quiet, droning “Little Dog,” in which Reed plaintively croaks such lines as “A puny body and a tiny dick/A little dog can make you sick.” The Jack the Ripper hookup is violently depicted in “Pumping Blood,” as Lulu begs, “I will swallow your sharpest cutter…Blood spurting from me.” In “Cheat on Me,” she asks a series rhetorical questions: “Why do I cheat on thee/Why do I desecrate me/Why do I piss my dreams?” The track concludes with the declaration “Your love means zero to me.”
Reed’s delivery throughout Lulu has frequently been referred to as “spoken word,” and while this is true to some degree it should not be surprising to anyone familiar with his previous work. Going all the way back to “The Gift” on the 1968 Velvet Underground album White Light/White Heat, Reed has been marrying recitations to beds of rock music. Over the decades, Reed’s vocal style has evolved into an increasingly monotonous form of speech-singing. For those who haven’t been exposed, it will be understandably off-putting. It’s an acquired taste to be sure, and some are bound to find it repellent. But contrary to those who characterize Reed as a confused old man spouting nonsense, there is a great deal of passion and, at times, warmth in Reed’s vocals.
That warmth comes through in the album’s extraordinary closer, “Junior Dad.” Though an extended instrumental coda makes this the longest track by far, its first half comes closest to Reed’s traditional style. Metallica provides a calm, reassuring, almost ethereal musical backing as Reed asks, “Would you come to me if I was half drowning? Would you pull me up – would the effort really hurt you?” Again I admit that I’m not really sure how this piece fits the overall concept of the album’s narrative, but it evokes a mood that isn’t heard anywhere else on the record. Its final eight minutes are probably not what many Metallica fans were expecting but they are subtly, soothingly melodic in their lovely drone.
Which brings up an important point: this is essentially a Lou Reed album featuring musical backing by Metallica, not the other way around. Anyone going into this expecting a Metallica album will likely be sorely disappointed. In fact, that seems to be the demographic complaining the loudest. Lulu is the first Lou Reed project to reach the top forty in the Billboard 200 since 1989’s New York. While I’m sure many Reed fans were happy to hear a new vocal album from him (his first since 2003’s ill-conceived Edgar Allen Poe concept piece The Raven), the reason for the relatively high sales was Metallica. Of course, those figures are anemic by Metallica’s standards, and the word of mouth – with many breathlessly proclaiming Lulu the worst album of 2011 – killed any potential for chart longevity.
The musical contributions of the band are varied and mostly very effective. Along with “Junior Dad,” the other song that most closely approximates Reed’s standard sound is “Iced Honey” (the album’s second single). One of the shortest tracks, “Iced Honey” sounds like a muscular outtake from Reed’s underrated 1996 release Set the Twilight Reeling. On songs such as “The View” and “Dragon,” Metallica cranks out thick, mostly repetitive, hard rock grooves. There is a near complete absence of conventional guitar solos. The focus of the rockers seems to have been creating a meaty wall of sound. But rather than becoming boring, the album remains unpredictable with sudden shifts into quiet ambience or acoustic-driven introspection.
For those adventurous enough to approach the album with an open mind, the Lulu experience is well worth the time. In the press notes, Reed declares Lulu “the best thing I ever did.” As interesting as the album is, I disagree (personally I would bestow that honor upon 1992’s supremely moving mediation on death, Magic and Loss). But it’s great to hear Reed sounding so energized and vital again. As reviled as Lulu is by some, it will be very interesting to see how well it ages. Given the legacies of both Reed and Metallica, I doubt it will be soon forgotten. It might even become better appreciated over time, once it’s separated from the hype and bad press.