As anyone who's heard even the 30-second sample Warner Bros. had the gall to leak a few weeks ago can tell you, Lulu is a trial to endure. The bewildering, bewilderingly long (two discs, 87:04 minutes) collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica doesn't make sense on any level—aesthetic, commercial, historical, even satirical. It's one of those records people feel no need to listen to before declaring that it sucks more balls than a Lotto jackpot machine.
But simply to call the record poor is both too easy and weirdly beside the point. Its utter unlikeliness puts it well beyond the reach of critical judgment and into the realm of fascination, simply because it exists. The main thing about Lulu is that it is fucking baffling, root and branch. Which, at the risk of being obvious, almost never happens in pop culture anymore. You think of the bolder moves executed by big-name musical artists in the last couple-few decades—Kid A? Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? Chinese Democracy? Achtung Baby? Lil Wayne's Rebirth? Can any even touch the hem of Lulu's garment for sheer blunt audacity?
Rarely does a record come along that has the power to confound the world—or whatever tiny little fragment of it still registers such developments in ye olde boutique of rock 'n' rolle. The last time such a full-blown, how-the-hell-can-this-have-happened?-style quandary was released by a major artist on a major label was probably when Reed himself followed the hit LPs Rock and Roll Animal and Sally Can't Dance with the heroically anticommercial Metal Machine Music in 1975. The gesture of that album became the all-purpose fuck-you signifier of the serious rock artist versus the expectations that precede him in the marketplace. So it shouldn't be a big surprise that 36 years later, Reed would be at the helm of a project that illustrates the uncertainty principle better than any quantum physicist ever could. And yet the question persists: Lou Reed. Metallica. No, seriously: What. The. Fuck?
The team-up looks all right on paper, especially if you forget everything you know about the way the two partners sound individually, and remember that the music business is a crippled hedonist in the final throes of tertiary syphilis, blind and deaf and desperate for one last superstar fling. And anyway, there have been less likely/more nakedly meretricious marriages of convenience between artists hungry for relevance and/or hits: Elton John and Eminem, Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse, David Bowie and Jagger/Reznor/Crosby/Cher. A cynic could say that Metallica is vampiring Reed's art cred, or that Reed is glomming onto Metallica because, like, well, how many other bands could guarantee him such a high-profile release at this stage in his career? But no matter how many times Lou has bummed you out, you'd have to walk a pretty long mile to call him a careerist. And what band ever cared less about cred, art or otherwise, than Metallica?
Despite his abiding reputation as a lone wolf, Lou Reed's career has always been defined by intense, seemingly unlikely collaborations—most significantly with Andy Warhol, John Cale, and David Bowie, and later with Robert Quine and Laurie Anderson. These associations tend to run deep, bear rich fruit, and then end badly, followed by disavowals and the reassertion of his artistic sovereignty. His coconspirators may grouse about credit and royalties, but Lou remains irreducibly Lou: the paragon of integrity and ultimate symbol of rock's quest for high-art bona fides no matter how many harmonized guitar leads, "Sweet Jane" re-records, Mistrials, Ecstasys, or The Ravens litter the road behind him. Good and bad have never been very useful designations when it comes to Reed, anyway. Even his lamest records have proven to be worth dusting off and wrestling with every few years. He remains one of rock's genuinely enigmatic enigmas. Also, he's the author of the Velvet Underground, Transformer, Berlin, Street Hassle, New York, and Songs for Drella, which is to say he has earned the eternal benefit of the doubt, a debt he has never hesitated to call in.
AND YET... Metallica. Of all the bands, surely they are number zero on any Reed fan's list of hoped-for collaborators. The partnership was born when they backed him on "Sweet Jane" at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 25th-anniversary show, where they appeared to be hearing the song for the first time. This indelible classic has been mangled many times, by many bands (many featuring Reed), but onstage at Madison Square Garden, Metallica was uniquely unfit for the purpose. They seemed chagrined to be playing such an offensively simple chord progression while their virtuosity shredder sat idling in the driveway—and the lyrics might as well have been in Gaelic. Likewise on Lulu, the abiding vibe isn't simply that Metallica and Lou Reed don't speak the same language, it's that they don't appear to be on the same session. There is no evident connection—conceptual or sonic—between band and singer, words and music, thought and expression. But oddly enough, this epic disjunction answers the big question mark looming over Lulu. What, in the name of all things unholy, does the guy who gave rock its literary pedigree and its drone imperative want with these multiplatinum heshers? It could simply be a new set of obstacles.
The jun-jun-jun-jun-skree-rawr jams that form a bed for the (to be fair: difficult, anti-musical, abstruse, literarily de trop) vocals are of a school universal to metal, but almost unheard of in the cult demimonde over which Reed has reigned supreme for coming up on 50 years now: hard guitar rock that betrays absolutely zero sign of having ever heard, or even heard of, the Velvet Underground. Which means that, as he has done so many times before, Lou Reed is denying himself the comfort of aesthetic familiarity and trying something new. Which means he's still trying. Which is at least some consolation during Lulu's relentless 90-minute fusillade of bullshit.
(It must mean that Metallica is trying, too, though they basically just sound like Metallica, with a dirty old street poet for a singer. They are unreconstructed, chugging like drone never happened. Never mind that to some of us, nothing they do will ever be remotely as heavy as "Sister Ray.")
The other end of the logical spectrum is that Lulu is artistic pretense gone haywire, two very different versions of legendary rock-star ego given unlimited reign to indulge their worst tendencies, an exercise in masturbatory experimentalism, which is just a fancy way of saying no editor. Did it need to be a concept album? Did it need to be so long? Did it need to be, full-stop? Of course not. It would have been far easier for them to do MetalLOUca Plays I'm Waiting For My Hyyyeeeeah and Other Classics. But they did Lulu. That's audacious. (Also audacious: the last song, "Junior Dad," the best thing on the record by miles, is 20 minutes long—making the 7-, 8-, and 11-minute ones that precede it seem almost demure.)
Obviously, audacity isn't the same thing as worth. I'd rather hear Reed both trying and succeeding. And I'd rather not hear Metallica at all. Still, I find I can't quite help but admire the insolence of Lulu, even though I know I'll never listen to it again. On the bright side, however, it's the first time I've ever made it all the way through a Metallica album voluntarily. They say if you can reach just one person...