Oh my. And Metallica fans thought St. Anger was bad.
When the news broke back in June that Metallica and Lou Reed were collaborating on a project, fans of both artists (or anyone who'd read the story, for that matter) scratched their heads. True, the pair had graced the same stage before, in October of 2009 at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame 25th anniversary concerts in New York, but this was a full-on album project, sparked when Reed asked the metal legends if they were interested in working together again in the future. After completing their extensive tour in support of 2008's stellar Death Magnetic album, Metallica contacted Reed to see what he had in mind. Originally, Reed suggested working together on re-recording some of his more obscure songs, a plan that was nixed at the last minute in favour of taking on another project he had in the works. That project was a concept album titled Lulu, which is based on the plays Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box from the early 1900's by German Expressionist writer Frank Wedekind. Collectively known as The Lulu Plays, their stories revolve around a troubled woman and her sexually charged relationships in various European cities. The subject matter is bleak and violent, and the plays' scandalous content caused much uproar and were banned when first unveiled to the public. The pairing of the two artists was enough of an oddball; throw the typically Reed-ish avant-garde nature of the source material in there as well and you have the potential for a trainwreck of mega-clusterfuckian proportions. And Lulu is just that.
Full disclosure: I am not a Reed fan whatsoever. I respect his influence and impact on some of my favourite artists, like U2, David Bowie, and (apparently) Metallica, but I have no use for his tone deaf vocals and grumpy personality. And let's not forget that this is a man who thought releasing his Metal Machine Music album, which contains nothing but 60+ minutes of guitar feedback and noise, was a good idea. So going into Lulu, I was not optimistic. My fears were confirmed immediately when I looked at some of the track running times (two of the ten tracks ran over eight minutes, two were over eleven minutes, and the awfully titled album closer, "Junior Dad", clocked in at just under twenty minutes) and also when I'd heard the first half minute of Lulu's opening track, "Brandenburg Gate". Following a lone acoustic guitar intro, Reed's first lines, sung in that signature horrid monotone of his, are "I would cut my legs and tits off when I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski, in the dark of the moon". Cue my eyebrows being raised, followed by a perpetually furrowed brow as I spent the next 90 excruciating minutes slogging through the rest of the album. "Challenging" doesn't even begin to describe it. Although Lulu improved just ever so marginally on the second listen (bringing it up to the level of merely "atrocious" from "excruciating"), that first go 'round was easily the most torturous first-listening experience I've ever encountered with an album. And that's really saying something, since Metallica is my second favourite band and, as a lifelong diehard music fan now into his 40's, that's a pretty wide sampling range from which to draw from.
Metallica's backing music isn't a great departure from their normal sound and they frequently bring some fine riffs and quality metal to the table, although much of it is repeated ad nauseum. That repetition becomes a real problem when many of the tracks are so long and drawn out. The aptly titled "Frustration" finds Metallica laying down a decent groove that's broken up with an artsy fartsy interlude featuring drummer Lars Ulrich adding off-tempo percussion fills and Reed spouting choice lines like these:
"I feel the pain creep up my leg/Blood runs from my nose/I puke my guts out at your feet/You're more man than I/To be dead, to have no feeling/To be dry and spermless like a girl/I want so much to hurt you (x 3)/Marry me/I want you as my wife"
"Cheat On Me" starts with a self-indulgent instrumental intro that goes on for three minutes and also features some of the few vocal lines delivered by Metallica vocalist James Hetfield on the album. Reed's tone deafness must be contagious, because Hetfield's repetitive delivery of the "why do I cheat on me?" line is, as they say, a little pitchy. Hetfield's vocals on Lulu are almost all of the background variety, save for a handful of lead lines on "The View" (try not to snicker as he yells "I am the table!"). "Dragon" and "Mistress Dread" both show flashes of signature Metallica, but once again can't fight their way past Reed's buzzkill vocals and the repetitive musical arrangements (I'm getting awfully repetitive in my criticism of the repetition on this album). The worst culprit of the latter on Lulu is the simplistic "Iced Honey", which sounds positively Ramones-like in its welcome brevity at just four-and-a-half minutes, compared to the rest of the songs. "Little Dog", the album's most sparely arranged song, is an eight minute dirge of plodding, directionless mood music. The bloated album closer "Junior Dad" sounds spent way before it even hits the four minute mark, which wouldn't be so bad if there weren't another fifteen minutes to go until the song's and album's merciful end. Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't add that most of the back half of the running time on this track is made up of nothing more than an instrumental soundscape of strings, keyboards, atonal droning, and other murky aspects of Reed's weirdness. It all adds up to this album being a veritable shit sandwich for the ears.
Make no mistake with Lulu: Reed is definitely steering this ship. The pair collaborated on most of the music, but Reed handles the bulk of the vocal duties and brought completed lyrics to the project. In the end, Metallica's contributions really don't matter much because Reed's warbling torpedoes any chance of these songs being remotely listenable, unless you're a fan of his (my sympathies). Reed's vocals are more spoken word than actual singing, but there are moments where he does appear to be trying to carry a tune and inserting a noticeable vibrato into his delivery. To my ears, however, it would seem that he's actually trying to be deliberately bad. I mean, can anybody actually be this off pitch? If it is a conscious decision on Reed's part, then that's an artistic decision I simply can't wrap my head around. In what has to be the most astounding quote I've read all year, Reed told The New York Times in this interview last week, "I've never sung so good". Wow.
So Reed's track record of creating polarizing music is well-documented. What to make of Metallica's decision to throw their fans such a curveball? Having followed their career very closely since 1988, I've read and seen enough to say that I think Metallica, moreso than most other groups I've followed, seem to have a disproportionately high number of followers who are not what I would exactly call "open-minded". Many of them freaked out when acoustic guitars appeared on 1984's Ride The Lightning, and mass hysteria and dissension greeted the release of 1991's self-titled "Black Album" due to the shift away from speed metal (never mind that the songs were still heavy as hell and the production was miles better). The alienation and handwringing continued with everything else they've released in the past two decades, whether it was good (Death Magnetic) or bad (2003's admittedly inferior St. Anger), so this is a band that simply can't please the masses any more with any one release. Clearly, the group did Lulu for their own selfish reasons and saw it as an opportunity to work outside their comfort zone and challenge themselves creatively, and I'm usually reluctant to criticize an artist for doing so...but I will. Lulu is so out there that the band must have known they'd alienate nearly all of their fan base, not just the mouth-breathers who, release after release, lament the fact that they're not getting Master Of Puppets part 2. Early reaction to Lulu from Metallica and Reed fans has been overwhelmingly negative; guaranteed, the first week sales figures on this one will be the weakest of the metal icons' career.
If, like me, you consider Death Magnetic one of the best albums that Metallica's ever put out (and other fans have told me I'm crazy for thinking this), it just stings even more hearing any of their efforts wasted on this tripe and not a proper Metallica release (which the band did give advance warning that this was not). They should have been building on the creative resurgence that was demonstrated on Death Magnetic, not making a career blunder on par with the "Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines" fiasco. This is a band that works notoriously slowly and it's a shame that in a career where they'll leave behind a finite number of albums, Lulu will be one of them.