Album Review : Metallica & Lou Reed - LuLu (2011)
Listen to LuLu here (or don’t)
Of all the bad ideas Metallica had over their decorated, but polarizing career, LuLu is probably the worst. The ill-fated collaboration with art rocker Lou Reed was torched by critics and audiences alike for being a vanity project with little regard for the band’s legacy or other people’s ears. Everything has been said about it, except for one thing: what the fuck were they trying to do exactly? I mean, this album is terrible. There’s no way around it. But is it terrible on purpose or is it just a bad idea? The answer to this question will determine whether this album is better or worse than St. Anger.
LuLu doesn’t sound like any Metallica record. But it doesn’t sound anything like an avant garde rock album either. It’s a series of nonsensical spoken word poems recited to sludgy, radio friendly alternative metal riffs. Unlike St. Anger, it’s surprisingly listenable. It’s not good, but it’s easier to tune out riffs you’ve heard a hundred times before and lyrics like: I would cut my legs and tits off/When I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski because the don’t mean anything. It’s just a grumpy old man trying to tell us he’s really into German movies. That’s the thing about LuLu. No one playing on it gives a fuck whether it’s good or not. It’s like a jam session.
One question I had was: is it faithful to Frank Wedekind’s plays Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, which allegedly inspired the album? Is LuLu objectively better if you’ve read them? So, I did and they answer is: kind of. Long story short, LuLu is a woman who only defines herself through male gazes because the only emotion she ever elicited was desire. Critics have accused Wedekind of being a misogyny, I believe he was simply trying to comment on it. It’s good. Better than the album. But Lou Reed clearly alludes to key moments of the plays in certain songs. Pumping Blood for example, narrates LuLu’s inner monologue while she’s getting murdered by Jack the Ripper *.
The View, which will forever be made fun of by Metallica fans, is actually a good synthesis of what the plays are about. LuLu is depicted as an avatar of beauty itself, which inspires feelings of worship from men around her and prompts abusive relationship over abusive relationship. I know James sounds like he’s soulfully singing “I am the table” on the chorus, but he’s not. She’s singing “I am the tablet” as a reference to Moses’ ten commandments tablets, hinting that LuLu’s a religious artifact. Except for songs like Little Dog or Brandeburg Gate which are nonsense, Lou Reed is actually trying to tell a story here. 87 minutes is just way too much time for him to tell it.
Because if it’s clear what Lou Reed is doing on LuLu, it’s still unclear to me what Metallica is trying to do. Avant garde rock is not an excuse to record an hour and a half of random, meandering instrumentals and ask people money in exchange for it. Experimental music is about experimenting, not playing house band for an old demented, misanthropic poet who wants to tell the world about a largely forgotten German playwright.
There’s no riffs or song structures on LuLu that I haven’t heard before. It’s not groundbreaking by any means. I don’t doubt that it was a fun record to make for Metallica as they stepped out of their comfort zone, but someone looking for Avant garde rock enthusiasts will not buy this record because it’s not Avant garde and Metallica fans definitely will and then hate themselves for it.
No, LuLu is not a successful record. It was hailed by a minority of critics as “breathtaking”, which for me is like laughing at a joke you don’t understand. Sure, it’s a decent and semi-original rendition of Frank Wedekind’s plays. But why would a multimillion dollar band record a tribute to a playwright nobody cares about? It doesn’t make any sense, which leads me to believe LuLu was recorded purely out of spite. Does it make LuLu better or worse than St. Anger? Slightly better I say, but not by much. It’s just funny to me that they reached out the most complicated, belligerent rocker for a collaboration, knowing how embattled their fanbase was with them. Metallica knew this album would fail not necessarily because it was bad (although it is), but because it did not give any of its potential audiences what it wanted.
* Yeah, you’ve read that well.