Watch That First Step, Mac – It’s A Lulu

I’m not entirely sure how eager people were to hear the results of a collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica. To just about anyone outside the studio in which Lulu, the fruit of this collaboration, was conceived, this seemed like a mismatch of epic proportions. Reed is a long-tenured experimental art-rocker from the Velvet Underground and is also known for solo hits like “Walk On The Wild Side” and “Perfect Day.” And Metallica – well, who isn’t familiar with Metallica on some level? They’re titans of heavy metal who need no introduction. The artists themselves seem pretty excited though – they decided to work together after performing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concert and have been hyping this record as one of the highlights of each of their careers.

I’m not familiar with the work of Lou Reed. I know him as the guy who did “Walk On The Wild Side” and inexplicably thought it was a good idea to release a double album filled with nothing but guitar feedback; I wouldn’t know a Velvet Underground song if it pulled a Mike Tyson and bit my ear off. Meanwhile, I see myself as a casual fan of Metallica. I dig their first five records, I like a few of the Load/ReLoad era singles, I think St. Anger is irredeemably flawed and yet still an honest artistic expression, and Death Magnetic is a step in the right direction. I was only somewhat curious to hear what Reed and Metallica would sound like together. But that curiosity was especially piqued when early reviews proclaimed that Lulu was now officially the worst thing Metallica’s name had ever been attached to – yes, St. Anger had finally been bested (or is that worsted?). I simply had to experience this thing for myself.

Let’s get my verdict out of the way right now: Lulu is an absolutely terrible album. It’s still streaming online as I write this, but please take my word for it. Don’t listen to this.

I mean, say what you will about St. Anger. Make all the jokes you want about lyrics like “My lifestyle determines my deathstyle.” Compare Lars Ulrich’s drumming to the intricate rhythmic creations of a child banging on cookware. Complain about how Kirk Hammett never plays any solos, or how the bass is inaudible (maybe they should have hired Rob Trujillo before they made St. Anger), or how James Hetfield’s voice sounds completely shot, or how the riffs sound like they borrowed Korn’s guitars and recorded some tracks in a garage. The producer (Bob Rock) said he wanted the record to sound like “a band jamming in their garage for the first time,” and, well… that’s exactly what St. Anger sounds like, for better or for worse.

But at least those songs had structure and energy. At least those songs sounded like they were going somewhere, like they had a point to them. The songs on Lulu often reduce Metallica to playing the same riff over and over again for five minutes at a time. After the acoustic intro, “Brandenburg Gate” is one guitar riff played over Reed’s tuneless ramblings; it sets the tone for this album in all the wrong ways. “Mistress Dread” has some thrashy rhythms, but the band just keeps on playing the same boring two-note riff. “Iced Honey” sounds like ‘90s Metallica, but once again the guitar parts are way too repetitive. Every potentially interesting musical idea or guitar part gets overused so much that you get tired of it halfway through every song. And no, Hammett doesn’t play any solos on this album. And if you thought the lyrics on St. Anger were laughable… man, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

Lulu is a concept album inspired by Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904), a pair of plays by a German writer named Frank Wedekind about a dancer (later a prostitute) named, well, Lulu. Wedekind’s plays were notable for their depictions of sexuality and violence – Lulu has several affairs, including one with a lesbian, and Jack the Ripper’s murders figure into the plot (he’s also presumably the Jack Lou Reed “beseeches” in “Pumping Blood”). I’m not familiar with these works at all – in fact, I’d never heard of them until I did a little research about this album – but it certainly sounds like a potentially compelling concept for an album. But as Roger Ebert says, it’s not what a work of art is about, it’s how it is about it. What this album is about is the least of its problems. For all I know about Wedekin’s plays, the Lulu this album is about might as well have been the black magic woman from Final Fantasy X.

To this day, science still can't explain how she keeps her boobs from popping out of that dress. Take THAT, gravity!

Listening to the songs through which the concept is executed is like eating ice cream on pizza – Lou Reed and Metallica are great on their own, but when you put them together it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Reed tries to pull off the same levels of shock and awe that the plays had in his lyrics, but it just doesn’t work at all. Especially when you consider how sexually liberated our culture is now as compared to when Wedekind wrote his plays. Or even when Reed and Metallica were at their respective creative peaks, for that matter. Lyrics like “I will swallow your sharpest cutter like a colored man’s dick” (at 5:15 in “Pumping Blood”) or “My small dog, he want what I’ve got/Wants to run his tongue over my hot spot” (at 4:06 in “Little Dog”) or the part where Reed refers to a vagina as a “Kotex jukebox” (at 5:47 in “Dragon”) are already pretty laughable, but when you consider that they’re meant to be taken seriously they’re even more cringe-worthy. And poor James Hetfield, the one guy involved in this project who can actually carry a tune, is left to occasionally chime in by repeating the phrase “small town girl” or straining to hit the high notes as he sings “Why do I cheat on me” or bellowing the inevitable Internet meme “I AM THE TABLE.”

That soon-to-be immortal lyric comes from “The View,” which was chosen as the lead single (relatively speaking) from this album. And when you listen to this entire album it’s not hard to understand why. It’s the only song here with a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure (everything else gets repetitive and monotonous) and the only one that uses Hetfield as a co-lead vocalist. Reed, despite his voice sounding shot and his delivery sounding like he can’t decide whether he wants to talk or sing, assumes lead vocal duties everywhere else on Lulu. This has led people to consider it a Lou Reed album featuring Metallica as the backing band, as if that’s supposed to excuse Metallica for their part in this debacle. The cover and credits give equal billing to both names; Reed wrote the lyrics and the music was a collaborative effort. To their credit Metallica tries their best to add some life to these songs, but they still can’t save the album from being tedious, overlong, and at times nearly unlistenable. It’s hard to imagine anyone outside of Lulu’s creators enjoying this record or even listening to it twice.

So what have I learned from the whole Loutallica experience? I learned that if Lou Reed waggles his ass like a dark prostitute, I would think less of him and his coagulating heart (actual lyric from “Pumping Blood”). I learned that I will one day start a band called Kotex Jukebox. I learned that it is in fact possible for Metallica to out-suck St. Anger, though at least Lulu is better than Metal Machine Music.

But above all else, I learned that James Hetfield is the table. And now I can die in peace.

High Points: The first ten minutes of “Junior Dad,” which contains the most pleasant and atmospheric music and least embarrassing lyrics Lulu has to offer (the closing orchestral instrumental is nice too, but it goes on too long). Also “Iced Honey,” which (as previously mentioned) sounds like something from the Load/ReLoad era. Old-school Metallica fans, I bet you thought you’d never be so happy to hear anything that sounds like Load or ReLoad.

Low Points: Pretty much everything else. This could be the front-runner for Worst Album of 2011. It’ll probably win the coveted title of Least Essential Album of 2011, though the AV Club could always surprise everyone and pick… oh, let’s say… the Justin Bieber Christmas album. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

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One response

  1. Pingback: The 2011 “Listen Up!” Awards: Handing Out The Harleys « Listen Up! (with Colin Frattura)

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