Lou Reed & Metallica, ‘Lulu’ – Album Review
What the hell would “Loutallica” sound like? That was the question on everybody’s mind from the very moment Metallica and Lou Reed announced back in June that they had just finished recording an album together. Fans got a small taste of things to come when the art rocker and the metal masters hit the stage together in 2009 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert, tearing through raucous versions of ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘White Light / White Heat,” both classics from Reed’s former band, the Velvet Underground.
‘Sweet Jane’ actually rocked pretty hard, but how would the collective translate in the studio when “Loutallica” were writing their own material? Apparently, the best way to define ‘Lulu’ is to say what it ain’t. “I don’t know what to call it, but it is not background music,” said Hal Willner, who produced with help from both acts. “It’s not party rock, that’s for sure,” added Metlallica frontman Hetfield, while guitarist Kirk Hammett’s take was: “[It's] not 100 percent a Metallica record.”
‘Lulu’ essentially is a concept album about a femme fatale named Lulu based on a pair of 19th-century avant garde plays penned by German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind. Reed wrote the lyrics in New York and flew out to Metallica’s studio in California, where together they hashed out the album in a decidedly off-the-cuff manner. Metallica acted as Lou’s backing band and, over the course of just 10 days, they laid down the entire 10-track disc.
‘Pumping Blood’ is a definite standout the first time through. It kicks off with a dabble of classical strings dancing like laundry drying in a soft summer breeze. A sustained guitar fades in, Ulrich plants a solid 4/4 kick beat, and pretty soon mid-tempo guitars are chugging away over drum fills. “C’mon, James!” Reed calls out as the momentum builds, then temporarily stalls, then falls into a loose groove of thrashing chops and wailing leads. This pattern repeats — pulse quickening and volume rising, then falling apart, then building back up into a cacophonous wall of noise — in a pattern that recalls the Velvet Underground’s most notorious creation, ‘Heroin.’
Elsewhere, ‘Iced Honey’ is a comfortable ‘Sweet Jane’-like mid-tempo rocker, and the closest ‘Lulu’ gets to anything traditional in terms of verse-chorus-verse structure. It manages to find its footing and gives Metallica room to rock out a bit, although they probably could play the repetitive instrumentation with their eyes closed and half asleep. Other tracks of note include the darkly discordant and strangely melodic opening number ‘Brandenburg Gate’ and the epic (in terms of its nearly-20 minutes running time) closing number ‘Junior Dad,’ which gradually builds in intensity before falling apart into a wash of symphonic blur.
The way ‘Lulu’ was unveiled certainly brought massive attention to the project, but, somewhat ironically, that only served as a distraction from what should’ve been the focus: the music. Details were rolled out incrementally over the course of several months in a manner that by the time it finally arrived, ‘Lulu’ had been over hyped so much that anything would be a letdown. Everyone wanted to hear it just so they could bash it.
That said, “Loutallica’ may have saved themselves by pulling off one final brilliant move. By releasing ‘The View’ — a distinctly underwhelming track, possibly one of the most obtuse of the bunch — as the first single, they set the bar for themselves so low, people couldn’t help but in a weird way be somewhat impressed when the entire ‘Lulu’ came out.
“It’s maybe the best thing done by anyone, ever,” Lou Reed said when of ‘Lulu’ right after they finished recording it. Now that we’ve finally heard the thing, we’re willing to go on the record and say it’s not the best thing ever. But it’s also not the worst, despite the fears of metalheads everywhere.