Unapologetically pretentious and combative, Lulu
is far from an easy listen. The unlikely pairing of avant-garde songwriter Lou Reed and metal titans Metallica
, this concept record features a collection of long, meandering, sometimes discordant songs that can test your patience. But if you stick with it, Lulu
can also reveal startling and majestic moments that float out of the clatter with stunning beauty and urgency. Ultimately more of a Reed record than a Metallica joint, this sprawling work ends up being neither as brilliant as it creators think nor as unforgivably terrible as its detractors claim.
When the announcement came out earlier this year
that Reed and Metallica had made an album together, it was as surprising as it was confusing. Other than the occasional flirtation with metal on experimental efforts like Metal Machine Music
, Reed had never been known as a real head-banger. As for Metallica, the band tend to do their own thing without a lot of outside influence or collaborators. And yet on Lulu
, Metallica serve as Reed’s backing band with frontman James Hetfield only contributing a few backup vocals. Based on a theater piece Reed had written, Lulu
isn’t totally out of keeping with some of his more artsy poetic musings from his days in the Velvet Underground. Still, this is a record that has a theatrical bent to it, largely eschewing hooks or even conventional metal structures for a free-flowing array of riffs and an atmosphere of dread.
Weirdly Hypnotic but Also Hit-or-Miss
Those who are willing to accept Lulu
on its own stubborn terms will discover that Reed’s often violent and disturbing imagery meshes nicely with Metallica’s stormy, angry music. In terms of the band’s oeuvre, Lulu
is probably closest to And Justice for All...
and Death Magnetic
in its favoring of long, elaborate epics that slowly unfurl over several minutes. But even those comparisons don’t quite work since Reed’s flat, spoken-word vocals lack the menace and fire of Hetfield’s delivery. There’s no denying the fact that Lulu
wants to challenge the listener, and it would be great to report that the album’s adventurous spirit pays off beautifully. Instead, it’s a hit-or-miss affair with some of the weaker tracks drowning in their own excess and self-regard. Even then, though, there’s something weirdly hypnotic about the whole endeavor’s blind faith in its own boldness. Lulu
doesn’t all work, but it’s consistently curious and engrossing.
A Concept Album With a Fuzzy Concept
After several spins through Lulu, it may still be difficult to figure out precisely what the album’s overarching storyline is about. Reed sings from the perspective of a female protagonist dealing with love, abandonment and obsession, but while the specific plot points are fuzzy, it’s clear she’s one very unhappy lady. That ends up working fine since Reed’s best material over the years has dealt with alienation and anger. On Lulu’s strongest moments, such as the 11-minute “Dragon,” that seething invective pours from his lips and the musicians’ instruments in wave after wave of pain and recriminations. And while much of Lulu assaults the ear and practically dares you to turn off the stereo, it does have its gentler, moodier textures, such as on the album-closing, 19-minute-long “Junior Dad.” Ultimately, what Lulu is "about" is less important than how it feels, and the record’s cacophonous, claustrophobic tone ends up being more galvanic than any of the individual songs.
Give It Time to Sink In
, too often Reed’s pronouncements come across as self-important gibberish, but they also manage to provide a tension that Metallica can then release through their focused, anguished riffing. In other words, the album’s aggravating, disharmonious surface is part of the point, allowing the eventual killer guitar hooks and Lars Ulrich’s pounding drums to feel even more powerful by comparison. The problem with this approach, of course, is that many people may be so put-off by the surface that they don’t dig deeper. But if you aren’t afraid of a little challenge, then Lulu
may make for some truly interactive listening. It will annoy you, it will bore you, but there’s no other album quite like it this year. You’ll have to decide if that’s a good or bad thing.
'Lulu' - Best Tracks:
“Cheat on Me”
Release date – November 1, 2011