There are two main camps of opinion regarding Lulu, the two-disc, 90-minute collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica. Neither is the camp that thinks Lulu is “good.” Both camps in fact agree that the album is ludicrous. The project exists because Reed and Metallica played together at an awards show, apparently experienced feelings of profound kinship, and decided to record together—and because, when the time came, Reed arrived with lyrics written for a staging of Frank Wedekind plays from late-nineteenth-century Germany.
So these five men spent a few weeks making this album, which consists of 90 minutes of Metallica motoring through ominous riffs while Lou Reed stands at a microphone, delivering alternately grave and bug-eyed addresses about bodily fluids, sexual aggression, sadism, masochism, emasculation, dogs, prostitution, dog prostitutes, death, armpits, nosebleeds, suicide, “a colored man’s dick,” being “spermless … like a girl,” the “lexicon of hate,” a “Kotex jukebox,” and various other Lou Reedy and/or Frank Wedekindy things.
The album is gorgeously recorded: It’s like you’re actually there getting yelled at by Lou Reed during a Metallica rehearsal. It sounds like an album Nick Cave might make if he were American, unstylish, desperate to get out of some kind of contract, and absurdly angry about whatever lost bet forced him into this method of doing so. It contains a fair amount of what you might call “unintentional comedy,” except that the phrase assumes the musicians intended you to react in some particular way. I’m not sure the musicians care. There is nothing remotely calculated about Lulu. It’s very clearly not a career move, an attempt to enlarge or unite audiences, or an attempt to accomplish anything remotely sensible or functional at all. The entire story here is that five men felt like making music together and spent a few days doing so, and now here is this thing called Lulu that exists, and is a thing.
So the two camps of opinion are as follows. First, there are those who find this album straightforwardly awful, a point of view that can be commended for being practical and decisive. The second group is more polyglot: those who think it’s terrific that an album this ludicrous could be made and released by big-time musicians; those who are cheered by hearing artists do something unusual and uncommercial simply because they feel like it; those who love the idea of a sprawling, baffling art piece potentially selling a million copies to Metallica’s devoted fan base; and those who are simply giddy over the sheer wonderful Luluness of this hypermasculine bellowing.
The more one listens to Lulu, the easier it is to get drawn into that second camp. Surely, you think, it’s a good thing for popular artists to make something this art-for-art’s-sake? (It must be art for art’s sake, because it’s clearly not for anyone else’s.) There are some cinematic, viola-streaked stretches that are quite affecting, like the twenty-minute “Junior Dad.” There are some lovably hilarious moments when Lou Reed says something in his signature Lou Reed croak, then Metallica’s James Hetfield repeats the same thing with his signature way of chewing up syllables—those are always a treat. (Reed: “Why do I cheat on me?” Hetfield, translating to Metallicese: “Why do I chee-yeat ow-on meh-yeh?”) You begin to settle into Lulu’s world. Reed would probably hate to hear this, but the album functions awfully well as background listening—a form of grim, repetitive mood music. It might be nice to put on if you planned to spend a long afternoon renovating a sex dungeon or beating someone up.
That’s about when you might realize something: Lulu is not actually that strange. It only sounds crazy and ludicrous because Reed and Metallica have made it so. Nearly all the satisfying qualities I can draw from it can be obtained in much more musical and better thought-out forms via Nick Cave and Grinderman, or Glenn Danzig, or just listening to metal while reading Freud. Lulu isn’t strange because it’s brave or arty; it’s strange because of the remarkable extent to which it doesn’t really work. There is nothing inherently laughable about Reed writing these impressionistic lyrics, stringing together memorable and unsettling phrases about sex and power and death; the reason they’re funny is that Reed seems slightly more interested in posturing and baffling you than making those phrases emotionally affecting. You don’t walk away from this album with many thoughts and feelings about sexual aggression. You walk away from it offering the benefit of the doubt that Lou Reed had such thoughts, because he is Lou Reed and that is sort of his thing.
So yes: Lulu might expose a few listeners to the broader possibilities of music as art, and the glory and freedom of musicians’ opening their minds and letting things spill freely forth, and what it sounds like when you make a really hi-fi recording of a heavy rock band. (Note that this is already true for Metallica themselves, a hugely fractious band that seems to have found a new creative groove with Reed—I suspect it’s a bit like when you invite a guest to Thanksgiving dinner so your own family can’t argue.) But for every fan Lulu introduces to something new, it will probably wind up convincing two dozen others that “art” is just a word for things that are weird and pointless and not really very good. And that is not cool at all; that is a real shame.
Lou Reed & Metallica.
Warner Bros. Records. $19.99.