I’ll fess up on being more than a little late to the party with “Lulu,” but when you’ve got an itch there’s only so much obligatory resistance that can be put up before just digging into the little bastard, and I’ve held this one down too long now. For those not in the loop, I refer to one lol-inducing collaboration between avant-rock icon Lou Reed and fallen-gods-of-thrash Metallica.
Let’s give that one a moment to sink in. Friends will confirm that upon hearing the news I promptly fell into catatonia and could only be revived by means of intravenous Chef Boyardee and the faint aroma of boiled carnations, so if you need some time to process such a colossal mind-[expletive] I’ll be more than understanding.
Good to go? Alright then.
I may as well disclose my biases at the outset. Comical as I now find Metallica, they were a pretty formative influence on my rage-rocking, hormonally haywire 11-13 year old self, and even now I can’t deny the technical virtuosity of their ‘80s output.
I’m also a big fan of the former-day Reed, particularly his work with The Velvet Underground (without whose impact pretty much every form of music considered left-of-center or alternative – punk, indie, noise rock, metal, the list goes on – probably wouldn’t exist) as well as the bulk of his ‘70s oeuvre.
Can’t say I’ve been crazy about his cultural contributions over the last couple decades, i.e. an ill-conceived, cheesily-implemented homage to Poe and a sequence of ambient pieces entitled “Hudson River Wind Meditations”; even when I’m not especially into what Reed’s doing, though, I have to admire the doing itself, the complete disregard for popular opinion or public image.
It was just such disdain for commercial pandering that fueled the best of his now-classic efforts (the VU didn’t get their due until years after dissolution; “Metal Machine Music,” comprised entirely of guitar feedback and white noise, never turned my crank, but some folks dig it), and with that in mind I resolved to give “Lulu” a fair shake.
Within the first few tracks, however, I knew this was no “Velvet Underground and Nico,” or even “Berlin.” Reed and the boys might genuinely enjoy each other’s musical company, but the end result of their awkward synthesis – Reed’s meandering spoken-word melodramatics over the workmanlike chugging of repetitive riffs – doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
Clearly as Reed’s S+M-flavored poetry is designed to shock (lyrics are based on a controversial early 20th-century German play of the same title), this album is unlikely to make waves akin to those provoked by his own boundary-breaking “Venus in Furs” forty-odd years prior. Lines like “I would cut my legs and tits off / when I think of Boris Karloff” induce more smirks than gasps. At this point the infamous “I am the table” probably needs no introduction, but YouTube it if you never caught wind of that particular Internet meme – it’s a good’un.
This may well all be moot, of course, since both Reed and Metallica have characterized “Lulu” as a passion project, an act of artmaking for its own sake, divorced from considerations of public reception.
Little as I care for the album itself, I’ve got to laud their brazen integrity. Reed’s been notorious as an outsider musician for decades (barring a few synth-infused ‘80s albums and a rather embarrassing stint hawking Honda scooters – we all make mistakes), but Metallica’s come to occupy a pretty cozy place in the mainstream.
For them to take on a project of such avant-garde leanings, thus guaranteeing vitriolic backlash from a substantial portion of their fanbase, surely requires some sizeable huevos.
As a musical dabbler myself (one whose tendencies run somewhat counter to popular currents), it’s tough not to marvel at these guys’ willingness to release a record they surely knew would be savaged critically and commercially.
I’ll take that kind of sincerity and artistic conviction over the endless hordes of meticulously calculated, lowest common denominator-oriented conglomerate concoctions being churned out on a perpetual basis. A failure “Lulu” may be, but an ambitious one, and that’s far more than you can say for the latest by-the-numbers offering from Justin Bieber or Katy Perry.
And hey, maybe I’m way off the mark and the passing of a couple decades will see “Lulu” reclaimed as a misunderstood masterwork. (Yeah, but probably not.)
Justin Levesque can be contacted at