Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lou Reed & Metallica's LULU

Good Lord, what a hornet's nest.

Judging from the critical reaction to Lulu, the collaborative album by Lou Reed and Metallica, that was released on Tuesday, you'd think all the CDs arrived slathered in shit. As usual, this move generated a massive freak-out from the "old school" Metallica fanbase, questioning the band's apparent desire to "destroy" their reputation. Leading to yet another round of "why do they call themselves 'Metallica?'' and other assorted fan wankery that basically amounts to telling an artist that they can only do exactly what they did when said fans discovered them, ever.

Of course, with that kind of thought process, Master of Puppets would never have happened. Metallica would be in a basement club, somewhere, cranking out a revised version of Seek and Destroy for the 25th time. That would be fine, but they also wouldn't be Metallica, a band that, from day one, was progressing. Progressing toward more melodic songs, longer, more complicated arrangements, and then back to more simplistic ones. The watchword was "change," and change motivated by whatever was turning them on at any given time.

Which, folks, is how it should be. As Eddie Van Halen once said, in his more lucid days, "As an artist, I'm egotistical enough to think that what excites me will excite other people" (or something like that). Any artist, in any medium, can only create things that draws an honest reaction from themselves. Personally, I've always felt Metallica was better at this than many other bands, and honest about it. You could love it, hate it, or endure it, but they were giving you where they were at the time.

Which doesn't mean it always works, but, come on, it's just a fucking album, people. It's not even a "Metallica" album. If everyone was being honest here, this would've been released as a Lou Reed album, or ever "Lou Reed featuring Metallica," the interviews seem to indicate that Metallica saw themselves as supporting Reed's vision, rather than influencing it. Honestly, the fact that the boys tried something completely out of left field, and in most respects, dropped the ball, doesn't bother me as much as the fan whining.

All that is prologue to my actually talking about Lulu. If you want the short form, it's a mess, clearly a project conceived and recorded in a hurry, a huge swath of it just does not work, but with some really interesting things going on that make it well worth the time, in my opinion. If you don't want to slog through the weirdness and bad choices to get to the good stuff, I understand, and more power to you.

Again, I point out, this is more of a Lou Reed album than Metallica album, and to try to judge it in terms of the latter is a fool's errand. Metallica contributes some pretty spectacular riffing, but the songs are rather one-note and monotonous, as Lou Reed is sort of known for. The ultimate result is "hey cool riff," followed by, "is it gonna change at all?" This is further compounded by the fact that all the songs are at least eight minutes. Point? It's a Lou Reed album, with Metallica contributing some riffs. If you're absolutely compelled to view this record in comparison to the artist's prior work, Reed's work provides the only fair comparison.

The first two tracks, Brandenburg Gate and The View exemplify all the criticisms heaped on this album, they're atonal, without melody and Reed's vocals are utterly jarring over the music. It's just a goddamn mess, and harder than hell to sit through. Track three, Pumping Blood, gets a bit better, as Reed's vocals become more intense, and I found myself actually trying to understand what he was trying to convey lyrically. Then Mistress Dread, which offers up the most "thrash metal" riffing on the album, and that caught my ear.

Perhaps it was low expectations, or maybe my ear was acclimating to the album, but, as I listened, I was getting drawn in. Then Iced Honey, where things start to really come together. Not easily, in fact, downright painfully, but with this track, you feel the "Lou Reed" and "Metallica" gears start to mesh. I actually think I may love this track, I've found myself re-listening to it several times. You see the ambition, the musicians working together to make somethign different, and I admire it. Cheat On Me, the next track, which ends the first disk, continues along these lines. On both these tracks it's still atonal and not melodic, but the cadences are coming together, it feel like a unified song. So, if nothing else, I can say the first disk ended strong, for me.

The second disk is stronger than the first. Frustration, Little Dog and Dragon continue along the same lines, it's not top-tapping, or pretty, but things feel unified and the lyrics are certainly provocative and interesting. Then comes Junior Dad, which is, and I mean this, quite amazing. Like most of the album, it's too long, at nineteen minutes, but here, finally, we have melody and Reed actually doing his "talk-sing" thing, rather than the more spoken-word style of the rest of the record. It's a real smack in the face, as to what this collaboration could've brought us. I get why James Hetfield and Kirk Hammet said they found the song very moving. The lyrics, which I interpret as being about feeling like a disappointment, hit home for me, as well.

This sentiment will likely continue
I'm not going to make any sort of case for Lulu as album of the year, or anything close to it, because that would be silly. It's not an inspired album, but it is an interesting one. It may not be of interest to you, personally, but I can certainly see the reasons for doing it. Lars Ulrich has always had the "bohemian artist" streak, and I'm sure part of him just loves doing these projects because of the fan reaction. This is not a mass-market album, and I can't imagine that anyone who worked on it ever thought it would be. The audience for Lulu will find it, and I would guess that audience will be a Lou Reed audience.

Best Tracks:
  • Iced Honey
  • Junior Dad

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