Depending on how you frame the historical narrative, Lou Reed (along with John Cale and the other members of The Velvet Underground) might just be the man responsible for all of indie rock as we know it. His work with VU inspired such key tastemakers as David Bowie and Brian Eno and helped set the stage for the emergence of punk. As a solo artist, Reed continued to push boundaries (Metal Machine Music, anyone?) and created a template for New York’s poet junkie songsmiths of the 1970s. Indeed, Reed is almost inseparable from the city itself: chronicling the decadence and decay of pre-Giuliani NYC in a cucumber-cool deadpan that forms the calloused exterior of a heart too raw and wounded to survive direct exposure.
Metallica, by contrast, is a band with no home. Sure, any fan could identify L.A. as the group’s city of origin, but that’s nothing more than a bit of trivia. While Metallica may have cut their teeth in the same pits that birthed Slayer and Megadeth, there is no scene or geographic context large enough to contain them now. Their influence over the heavy music of the past three decades has been incalculable, and there are not many twenty- to thirty-something white males in America for whom they were not the most important band in the world for at least a little while in high school. Metallica is the heavy metal cockroach. Nothing seems to kill them — not the years of increasingly bland recordings, not their controversial lawsuit against Napster, not even their less-than-flattering documentary, Some Kind of Monster. Whenever they isolate one group of fans, there seems to be a legion of others ready to take their place. However seldom we here at TMT might discuss them, they are a rock ‘n’ roll institution, one that is seemingly impervious to harm. And that’s why people listen to Metallica: because listening to Metallica makes you feel invincible, too.
This, more than anything, underscores why this collaboration is so utterly nonsensical, no matter what the artists or any rock journalist tries to tell you. Reed is the voice of New York City, and he speaks for every loser, hophead, and burnout who ever lost him or herself searching for beauty amid its squalid thoroughfares. Metallica is the voice of everywhere and nowhere at all: a violent, inchoate assertion of power and rage with no inkling of weakness or vulnerability. You could play a game of six-degrees of separation between the two artists to find their common sonic ground, but there’s simply no bridging the gulf between Reed’s place and Metallica’s placeless-ness, between Reed’s exposure and Metallica’s impregnability.
With this in mind, Lulu turns out exactly the way you would expect it to: with both parties stretching out towards each other across that spaceless void. The opening track, at least, seems to promise some kind of reconciliation. Reed’s tuneless proclamation ”I would cut my legs and tits of when I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski” while Kirk Hammett strums out a few frail notes on a lone acoustic guitar creates a sense of fragility that recalls Holly, Candi, or any other of the doomed, unidentifiable dreamers that litter Reed’s catalogue. And when the band finally kicks in, it creates a thundering cacophony that feels something like transcendence, like the monster movie paradise that haunts the imagination of the small town girl at the song’s center might just fall within her grasp. That moment of synergy passes all too quickly, though. The next track, lead single “The View,” is a much better indicator of the record as a whole, with Reed spouting nonsensical free-verse poetry over five minutes of sludgy, grindingly repetitive guitar riffs.
The record takes “The Lulu Plays” by German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind as its inspiration. The controversial plays (which also served as the basis for Pabst’s silent masterpiece, Pandora’s Box) provide ample fodder for Reed to play with some of his favorite themes: sexual domination, degradation, violence. It could make for a fascinating exploration of human dignity amid moral and material squalor if he approached his subject with even a modicum of empathy. Reed’s muse has never been partial to happy endings, but his best work has always been marked by a sense of compassion. The world of Lulu is a joyless one though, and the characters who inhabit it exist only to be abused and humiliated. It would be oppressive if Reed’s lyrics weren’t so cartoonishly obtuse. You can claim whatever obscure, high-culture pedigree you want for your work, but no amount of justification or intellectual gymnastics can get me to believe that when James Hetfield blurts out ”I am the view/ I am the table,” it’s anything other than an absurd non sequitur. It also doesn’t help that Reed’s own voice is shot to hell. His frantic pronouncements sound less like earth-shaking jeremiads and more like the semi-coherent muttering of the old man begging for change outside the 7-11 (not that I think even classic Reed could have pulled off lines like ”If I waggle my ass like a dog prostitute/ Would you think less of me?”).
And Metallica doesn’t really come out looking any better. Shackled to Reed’s aimless ramblings, they default to pure repetition. The lion’s share of these songs revolve around riffs that are incessantly recycled, often bracketed by pointless abstract instrumental codas (“Cheat on Me,” “Dragon”) or breaking down midway into bridges that lead nowhere (“Frustration,” “Pumping Blood”). Hammett and Hetfield’s dual guitar pyrotechnics are effectively neutered, failing to find a satisfying outlet anywhere in the bloated, ill-structured monstrosities that stretch out over the album’s two discs. Lulu reaches its onanistic apex in its final track, the nearly 20-minute-long “Junior Dad.” Boasting one of the album’s most inviting and accessible melodies, the song ends by dissolving into a droning string arrangement that sounds lovely… for the first three minutes or so, but it drags on for a full five and a half minutes beyond that.
Whatever the critics might think of the album, it’s clear that the guys who made it couldn’t be more pleased with the results (the alternately defensive and self-congratulating tone of this interview with GQ should tell you all you need to know). They have come together to create a work completely distinct from anything in either one of their catalogues, a work that pushes the boundaries of each of the artists’ musical style, and they’ve done it purely for the pleasure of doing it. I can’t really fault them for that, but it doesn’t change the fact that Lulu is a joyless mess, a grim, humorless record with no notion of when to say “when.” It’s a record that chucks out the best of both its collaborators, failing to unsettle with a naked depiction of degraded humanity or to reassure us with implicit promises of strength and invulnerability. Outside of the band members and their own friends and family, I doubt that it will appeal to anyone but those of their respective audiences who are sheltered enough from the realm of experimental music to mistake Lulu’s missteps for something genuinely cutting edge.