Album Review: Lou Reed/Metallica - "Lulu"
The internet has been fairly aflame since the announcement of the cooperative effort between Lou Reed and Metallica, two titans of their respective genres. Cynicism and hope ran high, the backs of necks bristled with both anticipation and fear. As more and more copies were released, and the web stream was opened to the public, the album took on notes of trouble. Soon, the clear skies above the album and its accompanying concept has turned black with a hurricane of vitriolic reviews and crushing waves of critical disdain.
So how does this album exist? It's easy to say that it is borne from the will of the musicians involved, but there's much more going on here. In the era of hyper-genre-fication, when every third or fifth band is being labeled by some new, equally meaningless epithet, it's difficult to envision an album that could so defiantly stand in the face of that increased audience segmentation.
There is a chance that camp Metallica and camp Reed saw this opportunity to present material to two historically separate and entirely disparate groups as perfectly tempting, low-hanging fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
Yet, as with that Biblical parable, there is an unanticipated devil that comes through the door with "Lulu"; the idea that instead of attracting two audiences who previously had little more than cursory recognition for one another, you might alienate both of them. (This is where the bitter among us would sardonically note that both Reed and Metallica are not strangers to alienating their fanbases.) The original alternative audience, and certainly the metal audience, are both used to betrayal (perceived or actual,) and are highly dubious of any effort that exists outside their respective paradigms. In truth, this natural suspicion is, more than any other element, the common theme between the two audiences.
With all of that as a backdrop, Reed and Metallica are streaming their unwieldy creation for free on their website, which seems to stand in contrast to everything we know about Metallica.
Which makes one again examine the principle behind "Lulu." It is counter intuitive in the modern music market to see gigantic legacies come together for a project without consideration for the profit it may or may not generate. It is only through this unusual and unexpected lens that "Lulu" even begins to make any kind of comprehensive sense.
The complication is that once "Lulu" begins to build a frame in your mind of why it exists, you still have to hear it. On paper, the concept seems brilliant; two accomplished songwriters coming together and shirking the traditional channels of promotion and label to create a unique project that explores the undiscovered country of music. Yet, just as with the Bay of Pigs invasion, the seemingly lopsided Super Bowl XLII, or installing one more heat sink in an attempt to cram a couple more LRM racks onto a graph paper Battlemech, there's a reason that paper isn't the final word.
The project drips with pretension, beginning with the concept of rewriting what Reed felt was an underachieving German existentialist play, and ending with a result that's nearly as abrasive and combative as "Metal Machine Music." At no point in the long, ungainly pieces does Reed's occasionally vulgar narrative match the music behind him, and at very few points in the gargantuan ninety minute runtime does the music test the abilities of the band.
Lou Reed's demonstrated inability to carry tunes as he used to so ably forms the critical crux of "Lulu." As such, Reed rhythmically talks in a flat monotone over the directionless, ambling music of Metallica. The whole affect is like if Henry Rollins was stricken with a dripping, liquid, debilitating flu and decided to read Ginsberg poetry to a finger-snapping group of pseudo-intellectuals who had gathered out of irony at a Metallica practice. The only thing that really separates Reed's rambling from the insane delusions of a metropolitan derelict is the legitimacy of his legacy. And the fact that he can get Metallica.
It's easy to come down on "Lulu" for its faults, but there are a number of reasons why this album is important. It shows that artists, even of the largest caliber, are capable of telling the traditional channels of music to go screw. The record demonstrates that not all corners of music have been explored, and that conventional genre labels can be rendered meaningless outside of a marketing complex. While high on ego, "Lulu" is, in some regard, especially when coupled with the genuinely empty and creepy cover art, a brave effort. While perhaps at worst a misstep, the record does not alter the long-term legacy of any of the parties involved.
So who does this exist for? While there may be fans of the effort, it seems to fair to surmise that this album exists solely for the benefit of Lou Reed and Metallica. While it is exactly the type of effort that Rolling Stone or Pitchfork will find laudable because of its mold-breaking creation, the actual music will have a hard time finding an audience. It is highly experimental and soaked in discord, although not as a product of the same kind of explorative nature that fueled the works of modern classical musicians like John Cage or Vladimir Ussachevsky.
So, Lou Reed and Metallica had a jam session. Good for them, I'm glad to see that musicians can explore their passions. Ultimately, that doesn't mean everyone else had to hear it.