CD Review: Lou Reed and Metallica "Lulu"

CD Review: Lou Reed and Metallica "Lulu"
Warner Bros.
All Access Review: D-

Destined to become one of the most controversial albums of all-time, Lulu never had a chance. When news first broke of a Metallica-Lou Reed collaboration, on a record of songs for two plays by German playwright Frank Wedekind no less, critics from here to China were sharpening their knives to mercilessly skewer this pretentious pile of avant-garbage and then toss its bloody carcass into a landfill. No amnesty for past brilliance was promised, nor has it been given. To say the careers of Metallica and Reed are on suicide watch might be overstating the issue, but the reputation of both parties has been irreparably harmed in the making of Lulu. And hardly anybody is feeling sorry for them.

The die was cast as soon as Reed proclaimed Lulu the best work of his career. That declaration alone seemed like the delusional ravings of a once-genius artist gone completely mad. For Metallica’s part, the Bay Area thrash gods haven’t shrunk in the face of heavy criticism either. Lars Ulrich even went on “That Metal Show” and implored people to give it a chance. And they should. They ought to judge it for themselves without the white noise of critics’ drowning out their own thoughts. It is an important work for both, a crossroads record that will either point to a bold new direction that will shock and awe the world, or it’ll be an unmitigated disaster. So, what’s the verdict? Well, let’s put it this way: that therapist from “Some Kind of Monster” might have more work to do on Metallica … and maybe Lou, too.

It’s not lack of ambition that dooms Lulu. The problem has more to do with communication. It’s as if Metallica and Reed are speaking in foreign tongues and neither party understands what the other is trying to convey. Never has Metallica sounded more uncertain of itself, and part of the problem is, nobody knows where Reed is going with his senseless poetry. In a wobbly voice ravaged by age, Reed spits out ridiculously silly lines such as “I would cut my legs and tits off/when I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski/In the dark of the moon” and clumsy rhymes like “It made me dream of Nosferatu/trapped on the Isle of Doctor Moreau” – both from the opener “Brandenburg Gate” – in a spoken-word hemorrhaging that ought to be disinfected and bandaged.

And it’s tricky for Metallica, known for its aggressive, lightning-fast riffing and crashing rhythms, to figure out what mood to set. When Lulu’s first single, “The View,” was released, all you could hear was the chirp of crickets, and there’s a reason. It’s a grim death march from beginning to end, and “Pumping Blood,” with its violent, gory imagery of a rape or a murder, should be filled with tension, rage and desperate energy, but instead, it sounds impotent and mechanical, with Metallica pressing forward tentatively and then pulling back as if James and the boys are waiting for a cue from Reed.

There are moments when it seems as if the real Metallica will rise from the dead and let loose a whirling storm of chords that would trigger tornado warnings. And “Mistress Dread” starts out whipping around with serious intensity, but it just keeps whirling in the same direction and never gathers strength. Where Metallica feels lost at sea on “Mistress Dread,” they try to stage a pop-oriented surprise on “Iced Honey,” and it just might have a chance if not for a laughably disjointed duet between Reed and James Hetfield.

Putting the Disc 1 in the rearview mirror, the partners go for broke on “Frustration,” one of four tracks on Disc 2. Constructing a gargantuan wall of guitar sound and thick grooves that seems to blast upward through cold, dead, droning earth, Metallica appears to have righted the ship. It’s heavy, a thousand yards wide and satisfying, given everything that’s come before it. Then, suddenly, the action comes to an abrupt halt … for these head-scratching, disconnected interludes that interrupt the flow of the piece and let Reed prattle on about male sexual frustration and misogynistic hatred. Quietly muddled, “Little Dog” spends a lot of time mucking about with atonal stabs in the dark, and it seeps into “Dragon,” which could have been just as bloodless. Again, Metallica tries to propel the track with weighty, pounding riffage, and Kirk Hammett and Hetfield strongly assert themselves with crushing guitar and a tendency to toy around with Sonic Youth-style experimentation – something they do a lot of on Lulu. The problem with Metallica here, and almost everywhere else, is that once they take their bats to a riff, they beat it into the ground. And then they pound on it some more, just to make sure it’s dead.

There are ideas worth exploring on Lulu, and not everything the very elderly sounding Reed – and startling so – pours out onto the page is excrement. Scary, confrontational, ugly and dramatic, Reed’s words capture, in very stark and dangerous language, the abused, exploited life of tragic characters caught up in horrifying circumstances, and he tackles big themes. But, Lulu is too repetitive, too imbalanced, too directionless and too … well, boring and needlessly long, and Reed often commits egregious poetic crimes. Metal Machine Music now has some competition for the title of “most unlistenable album of Lou Reed’s career.” As for Metallica, one gets the sense they’re searching and trying to add layers of depth to their identity. Suddenly, however, St. Anger doesn’t look so bad.

-          Peter Lindblad

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