Okay, so as promised, here is my review of Lulu, the new collaboration between the rock singer/songwriter Lou Reed and the heavy metal band Metallica. It’s ended up being much longer than I intended, but there’s a lot to talk about here; the origins of the project, how it fits into their bodies of work, and why Metallica’s fans have reacted as they have. Hopefully my thoughts are interesting and enlightening.
(tl;dr: I love it, and I know most people hate it, and they’re wrong.)
So, let’s go. Join me over the fold, won’t you?
Risk and reward
Experimentation can be a dangerous business for an artist. Part of the business of art—whether the art is music, writing, painting, or anything else—is establishing a distinctive personal style. It can take years to find your voice, and longer to become comfortable enough with that voice to produce your best work.
So, when an artist decides to broaden his horizons and try something new, it can be very difficult to step outside the established boundaries of his work. There’s the risk of losing one’s distinctiveness—and, in addition, there’s the possibility of not being aware of what was lost. The risk is compounded when the artist has had some success and built an audience; very often, these people are resistant to any serious digression from what they’ve previously enjoyed.
I’ve been a fan of Metallica for at least 25 years. I first became aware of them from late-night college radio in the early 1980’s, and became a convert after seeing them live in 1986 (touring behind Master of Puppets). I’ve stuck with them faithfully ever since, including during the dark years of ReLoad and St. Anger. I’ve always admired their willingness to take risks and to try new things, even if I haven’t always cared for the results.
So, when I heard a few months ago that they’d made an album with Lou Reed, I was highly intrigued. I’ve been a fan of Reed’s for roughly the same length of time, ever since discovering the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat in 1985 (thanks to an article by Henry Rollins in Spin). While I still favor his work with the Velvets, he’s done a lot of good work since then, and even his most experimental stuff is always interesting; I’ve even listened to (and enjoyed!) Metal Machine Music multiple times.
I knew that this would be an odd pairing; Reed and Metallica come from very different musical traditions. But I had enjoyed their performance of “Sweet Jane” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert, and so I had high hopes for this. I knew it would be fascinating, if nothing else. This was borne out by the first snippet to be posted online. Along with most of the listeners, I found it surprising and not entirely successful, but I was unwilling to give it a blanket condemnation without hearing the whole thing.
On Monday, I discovered that the album, due to be released November 1, had been leaked online. So, of course, I ran to find it (knowing that I would be buying it nonetheless). And so I can finally report that Lulu is . . . a masterpiece.
This is not a popular opinion. Go to any page with information about the album, and you will find page after page after page of comments about how awful it is and what a horrible idea this collaboration was.
Nevertheless, I stand behind my statement. Lulu is a masterpiece. It’s one of the best things that either Lou Reed or Metallica has ever done.
What is Lulu?
The story originated in a pair of plays by the German playwright Frank Wedekind: Erdgeist (Earth Spirit, 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1904). They tell the tale of Lulu, a femme fatale who rises in Berlin society through her romantic and sexual escapades, only to be later destroyed by them. Dark, violent, and unusually frank about sex, the plays were controversial at the time but are now seen as harbingers of German Expressionism. The plays were later adapted into a silent film, Pandora’s Box (1929), as well as an acclaimed opera by Alban Berg (Lulu, 1937). In April of this year, the avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson premiered a new production of the Lulu plays with the Berliner Ensemble, featuring music and lyrics by Lou Reed.
18 months previously, Reed had been invited by Metallica to perform with them at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden. They performed two classic Velvet Underground songs, “Sweet Jane” and “White Light/White Heat”, and had such a good time that they decided immediately to record together. In the spring of 2011, after Metallica had finished their tour for the album Death Magnetic, they met with Reed to brainstorm.
The original proposal was for Reed and Metallica to work on some of Reed’s older recordings, to reimagine them and update their sound. However, having just completed work on Wilson’s version of Lulu, Reed suggested instead that they record his songs for that project. Once they heard the material, Metallica were enthusiastic, and the rehearsals quickly evolved into impromptu recording sessions. Within a very short time the album was completed. According to both, they’re very happy about the final product.
When this collaboration was announced, many fans on both sides were scratching their heads. The two acts come from very different traditions within rock music, and indeed within art itself. Metallica emerged from the blue-collar heavy metal scene dominated by Black Sabbath, with a large dose of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal; Lou Reed, on the other hand, started with an interest in traditional rock’n’roll and rhythm and blues, and later built strong connections to jazz and the New York avant-garde art and theater scene. The two styles, at first look, made for an extremely odd pairing. However, there was one crucial decision by Metallica in the early days of the project that made all the difference.
Metallica has always kept a very tight leash over its writing and recording process, and usually refused to collaborate with outside musicians. (The only exceptions I can think of are their use of Marianne Faithfull as a guest vocalist on “The Memory Remains”, and their S&M project with Michael Kamen and the San Francisco Symphony.) But for Lulu, they chose to set aside their accustomed control and give themselves over to an outsider’s vision. Without this act of trust, the two styles would likely be impossible to reconcile.
Therefore, while Lulu is certainly a collaboration, Lou Reed is without question the dominant partner. Metallica are there to support and enhance his work—to put their stamp on it without utterly changing its character. In particular, James Hetfield has said that this was an opportunity to set aside his usual lyricist duties and focus on making the music the best it could be.
The resulting music is a serious departure for both artists. Metallica’s work here is far more expressionistic than anything they’ve done before, sonically interpreting the pain and darkness of the lyrics in order to complement them. They’re stretching themselves in ways that they’ve never tried previously, with freeform structures and jagged, disjointed instrumental sections that masterfully evoke the anger within the words.
Lou Reed, meanwhile, has finally found musicians who can fully express the violence and brutality that has always lurked below the surface of his best work. Ever since his days with the Velvet Underground, Reed’s music has hinted at this sort of fury. With the possible exception of Metal Machine Music, he has never fully achieved it. But here, he goes all the way—as he put it, “We pushed as far as we possibly could within the realms of reality.”
The album consists of ten long tracks, built around lyrics that approach the enigmatic central figure of Lulu from the viewpoints of several of her lovers (of both sexes), as well as Lulu herself. The main themes are Lulu’s self-centeredness and emotional distance from the various people she attaches herself to, the exploitation that this disconnect makes possible for her, and the frustration and disillusionment that her lovers feel as a result.
The various characters each express their flawed images of her and their desire for her, often in full awareness of her disregard for them (“Iced Honey”, “Frustration”, “Dragon”). Lulu herself, meanwhile, shows little emotion beyond contempt for her lovers (“The View”, “Little Dog”) and idle curiosity about her own disconnect (“Cheat On Me”); only during her murder, at the hands of a thinly veiled Jack the Ripper (“Pumping Blood”), does she finally achieve a real connection.
Heavy stuff. And Metallica takes these dark materials and builds a sonic landscape to match. But what’s critical to realize here is that the lyrics are central. This is an album that rewards close attention to the words; the music is important, but it only makes sense as atmosphere for the story that’s being told. The general mood is one of tension, dissonance, and disconnection; the quiet but disjointed instrumental passages, the harder riffs, and the often-harsh solos all serve to illustrate the emotions conveyed in the lyrics. The exception is the more sentimental final track, “Junior Dad”, which mostly consists of lovely synths and strings.
Yes, strings. The instrumentation is considerably more diverse than in Metallica’s other work; Lulu makes extensive use of violin, viola and cello. But they primarily serve to accentuate the desired mood of the piece, whether as fragmented bits of orchestration or as Bernard Herrmann-style shrieking. (Incidentally, the violin at the beginning of “Pumping Blood” sounded so much like Reed’s paramour, performance artist Laurie Anderson, that I had to check to make sure she didn’t do it.) And again, “Junior Dad” proves the exception, ending the album with a carefully structured ten-minute string coda that’s really quite beautiful.
Not that it’s all like that. There are plenty of crunchy heavy-metal riffs. But unlike in everything else Metallica’s ever done, they’re not the point. The band has pointed out that in their usual process, the lyrics are often an afterthought. Not here.
This, I think, is at the core of why this album has generated so much overwhelmingly negative reaction from Metallica’s fans. They’ve never heard the band in a supporting role before, and they’ve never had to pay much attention to the lyrics if they didn’t want to. Metallica’s music has always been more about riffs, intricate solos, and sheer crushing power.
But here, all that is secondary. This is very much a Lou Reed project, and his style is central. Lulu actually fits very well into his body of work, on the basis of the relationship between the music and the lyrics. It simply sounds like a Lou Reed record, but one that happens to have Metallica as the backing band.
For Metallica’s fans, however, that’s blasphemy.
Of course, this is nothing new. Many of Metallica’s fans have been complaining about their work for over 20 years, ever since they moved away from the original speed-metal style of Master of Puppets and . . . And Justice For All and toward the more conventional sound of the Black Album. With each new release, whether it’s the sprawling alternative-rock production of Load and ReLoad, or the harsh, underproduced St. Anger, the complaints have gotten louder. Three years ago, the album Death Magnetic brought them back toward their original thrash-metal sound, and this went a long way in the eyes of many fans toward rebuilding their reputation. But Lulu, for many, seems to have been the breaking point.
And that’s not fair to anyone, especially not Metallica. After 30 years, I think they’re entitled to grow and change and try new things—especially since they have the personal and financial freedom to do so. Whether their fans want to follow them, however, is another thing.
I believe that Metallica’s fanbase is likely to fracture over this album. The vast majority will be confused and angered by it, as we’ve seen from comments by those who have heard it. And then there will be a few who understand what they and Reed were trying to do, and who will appreciate the success of this very risky experiment—and that minority will be forever shunned by the majority who don’t get it.
Since I’m in the latter camp, I don’t expect that there will be much positive reaction to my opinion. But that’s okay. Lou Reed and Metallica have produced something amazing and thought-provoking, and I am very happy they did it. And I couldn’t be more excited to see how it influences their future work.
Rock’n’roll has always been about liking what you like, no matter what anyone says. And I love this. That’s enough for me.
Update: Thanks to an email from one of the commenters below, Roseanne Salyer, I found a terrific set of videos of Lou Reed and Metallica performing for German radio a couple of weeks ago. There’s a long interview segment in the middle (the third video on the list) in which they talk about the process, their approach to the material, and their attitude toward change and growth as artists. Plus, of course, some incredibly hard-rocking performances. Highly recommended.