Friday, October 28th 2011
When news first broke that Lou Reed & Metallica joined forces for a project, the public reaction was mixed between confusion and skepticism. While both artists have had their shares of great success in the past, their music styles are obviously disparate, and it was understandably difficult to picture a combination of them possibly sounding good enough to warrant an entire LP. Now that the double-album Lulu is out, the fears and doubts regarding its quality have been, unfortunately, solidified.
The first single from Lulu, entitled The View, had already garnered hatred from listeners, and in the context of the album, it pretty much shows all the things that went horribly wrong with it. First and foremost, Lou Reed doesn’t sing – he never really has – he basically reads the lyrics to the song, in an often emotionless delivery. While this style has worked in his solo career (and in his glory days with The Velvet Underground), here, backed by Metallica, it sounds instantly unsettling. The heavy metal provided by the band is as inappropriate to Reed’s non-singing as any random musical genre you can imagine, and the juxtaposition of both styles is downright laughable in several spots. The fact that metal and Lou Reed don’t match becomes quickly noticeable, and only becomes more blatantly obvious as Lulu goes on.
Take Mistress Dead, for instance, which is probably the clearest, most basic example of the poor combination of styles. While Metallica play a standard riff that might as well be the dictionary definition of “thrash metal”, Reed moans his usually weird, graphic lyrics, “I wish there was a strap of blood / That you could kiss away / Tie me with a scarf and jewels / Put a bloody gag to my teeth“. And yet, neither element sounds like it belongs to the same song, at any given point, as if both parties were competing to see who could move the further away from a stylistic crossroads. The fact that the instrumentation shows about as little variation as the vocal performance, doesn’t help either. The results, while not always ridiculous, still fail to demonstrate why this collaboration ever sounded like a good idea.
That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t moments where small hints of actual chemistry pop up. On a few cuts, Metallica deviate from their usual brand of metal, and approach something more akin to Reed’s previous solo work. Iced Honey, one of only two tracks that don’t go over five minutes here, contains proper rock arrangements that fit Reed’s voice more appropriately, he makes an effort to actually sing – though within his limitations. James Hetfield helps out on the singing during the chorus, hitting the notes that Reed obviously can’t, and, surprisingly, the song goes by without any embarrassments.
Cheat On Me, which follows, also features Hetfield on vocals, to an even greater effect. After an atmospheric start with dissonant string arrangements and distorted guitars, the song takes form with a relatively slow beat, and Reed does another performance that doesn’t sound alien to the music. As it progresses and gets heavier, Hetfield begins to share vocal duties with Reed, sometimes even taking the forefront, avoiding the stylistic disparity that plagues so much else on this record. Also due to some great riffing, Cheat On Me winds up as a highlight, and shows a mold that could have been adopted on more songs.
Unfortunately, even on those moments where it seems like the project might take flight, they’re still merely less discomforting than the many, many disappointingly bad musical choices made here. Any hope gained from the two tracks mentioned above is quickly dissolved by Frustration, which returns to the unfortunate combination of heavy metal and spoken word. To make matters worse, it features a mid-section with nothing but Reed and drum fills by Lars Ulrich, in something that dangerously resembles Spinal Tap’s Jazz Odyssey. The balladry of closing track Junior Dad, tacky as it may be, comes as a relief, but its ten minutes of string arrangements inevitably serve for the listener to raise several questions about what the hell just happened during the past hour and a half.
Lulu is extremely hard to recommend, and even harder to find out who to recommend it for. Fans of Reed might be able to enjoy his lyrics on some level, for they are, if anything, easily identifiable – there’s the song where he begs to be degraded and eat waste, the one where he yells “JACK” about fifty times, the one where he’s “spermless like a girl”, and, of course, the one where James Hetfield is a table. Alas, little does the poetry matter if the music doesn’t hold up.
As for the four musicians’ contributions, they’re far from impressive, but never get as embarrassing as some of their least-inspired Load/Reload/St. Anger cuts. While James Hetfield’s rhythm guitar is the driving force most of the time, Kirk Hammett barely gets any chance to shine, as there are disappointingly few solos here. Lars Ulrich continues his strength-over-versatility drumming approach, arguably the least appealing aspect of the group for many years now, and Robert Trujillo’s bass remains practically buried in the mix. Sometimes, It’s almost as if the group decided to hold back, and not waste any good riffs here. Except that’s really not the case here, as evidenced by the members themselves.
Metallica, already fully aware of the hatred Lulu was getting, have already stated that it indicates what their future studio work might sound like. With that in mind, it’s also frightening that every party involved shows so much confidence in the quality of this material. Interview after interview, they demonstrate nothing but complete investment into the project, and genuine belief that this is among their finest work. It’s disturbing to think that they don’t see anything wrong with this collaboration.
Metallica themselves are not the real mistake here, as they can still dish out decent thrash metal hooks, and on some occasions deviate from that style, producing arguably better results. The mistake was assuming that their particular brand of music would be a good fit for Lou Reed’s voice. Most of the time, Reed’s non-singing is too prominent for fans of Metallica to just enjoy the music, and, at the same time, the music can be too heavy for Reed’s fans, culminating in something that neither group of listeners can properly enjoy. Considering that this never sounded like much of a good idea to anyone, it’s not a huge loss.