Master of Bation

Metallica Helps Reed Reach an All-Time Lou

  • comments (17)
  • Print
+ Enlarge this Image
Anton Corbijn
LOUTALLICA Sucking more balls than a Lotto jackpot machine.

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... recommended


Comments (17) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
Emeritus, were I a Pulitzer in the category of Headline/Subhead Combinations I would award myself to you unreservedly.
Posted by gloomy gus on November 9, 2011 at 9:52 AM · Report this
Gern Blanston 2
I know what you mean about Metallica, Sean. I feel the same way about Harvey Danger. I could only make to halfway through that fucking stupid helicopter song on their debut CD.
Posted by Gern Blanston on November 9, 2011 at 11:21 AM · Report this
I love this more than I can describe with words
Posted by Kelly O on November 9, 2011 at 11:40 AM · Report this
This is a great review!

What I have heard from this album so far has indeed been horrible but honestly it is a step-up from pretty much every collaborative rendition of "Perfect Day" that he has ever done...

With Pavarotti:…

With Dr. John:…

and the worst thing ever -
With everyone (seriously, EVERYONE):…

Posted by Chris Weber on November 9, 2011 at 1:29 PM · Report this
sevendaughters 5
This is the best negative review I've read of this because it's fair. I don't think the record is that conceptually baffling or even that bad (it's mediocre, the first half is bar room rock, the second half is better but overlong at half the length). I openly APPLAUD the effort that has gone in at parts of this even though I ultimate won't bring myself to listen to it again. But I commend Sean on not doing what every other bashing of this has done and throw a load of baggage on the ground - art-rockers famously hate metal and vice-versa - that prevents any kind of real engagement with what is going on.

I quite liked 'Cheat On Me' and 'Junior Dad', which together last as long as Reign In Blood. A chilling thought.
Posted by sevendaughters on November 9, 2011 at 4:25 PM · Report this
markvz 6
I've listened to Metallica since 'Ride the Lightning' and I've noticed over the years that Metallica fans can be far more brutal in their criticism than people who just don't like them. I don't like much of what they did after 'Justice', but that doesn't mean that I think they suck.
Posted by markvz on November 9, 2011 at 4:49 PM · Report this
We're discussing Metallica, why? They were a fairly good metal band in the late 80's. OK.

Since then, they long ago became corporate suckups. They exist to sell CDs and t-shirts to white kids in the suburbs and small towns. They exist as a nostalgia thing for 40-something stoners.

Why would someone actually listen to one of their albums?
Posted by Mob Barley on November 9, 2011 at 5:18 PM · Report this
iiiiiiiiiii'mmm searchiiiiiiiiiin foooooor mayyyyyy maaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnn're a great one, sean.

Posted by d.colonel.eyes on November 10, 2011 at 6:04 PM · Report this
Best review of this record yet! It's beyond the simple reductive pitchfork 0-10.0 scale. It's a baffling experiment. I can't say that I "like it," but art doesn't have to be pleasing in that way to be worthwhile. What I know is that this was a brave move by an artist and a band (both of whom haven't been vital for many years). I don't think I'll listen to it that often--or ever--but I'm glad it's out there. And I hope that other musicians will say fuck all on occasion. Someone might come up with something new, instead of retreads of the same records.
Posted by reallymissseattle on November 10, 2011 at 6:33 PM · Report this
Reed should have acquired a unheard of metal band and let 'em have a go.
Posted by firecough on November 11, 2011 at 9:19 AM · Report this
thelyamhound 11
The idea of Reed working with a metal band isn't terrible, but it would have made more sense to pick a drone-conscious act like Earth, Sunn O))), or Boris.

Still, I'm always willing to lend an ear to an interesting failure.
Posted by thelyamhound on November 11, 2011 at 11:26 AM · Report this
Excellent analysis. Shame they didn't go for Metallica Machine Music.
Posted by Dave Segal on November 13, 2011 at 5:48 PM · Report this
Estey 13
Ha! Great one, Dave (and yeah the aim for simply an overflow of noise might have succeeded instead -- think of all those tightly coiled riffs on "... And Justice For All" dragged out and blurred forever). And this is a sweet review Sean. However, reading the line "It must mean that Metallica is trying, too, though they basically just sound like Metallica, with a dirty old street poet for a singer" makes me want to go buy it.

But as I haven't liked a Lou too deeply since "New York" and I haven't dug a Metallica much since "Justice" I can probably resist doing that.

Truly crucial line: "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."

Posted by Estey on November 14, 2011 at 3:58 PM · Report this
Haha. Great review of what seems a pretty poor album. The funniest part is that I will probably buy it to round out my Lou collection and suffer it a few times through. Right on, Sean.
Posted by jenc01 on November 14, 2011 at 7:41 PM · Report this
watraveller 15
This can't be any worse than Willie Nelson's reggae album but i'll take your word for it.
Posted by watraveller on November 14, 2011 at 7:45 PM · Report this
Anthropomorhpise Me 16
It seems like they tried to rip off Rick Rubin's version of Johnny Cash and tried to apply it to Lou Reed.

If you like to torture yourself.…
Posted by Anthropomorhpise Me on November 15, 2011 at 2:00 PM · Report this
What the fucking fuck? I can't even remember the last time Metallica did anything better piss in my earhole and poison my brain. And Lou, WTF?!! Please get back on the junk. Do you really want to end up like Steven Tyler.
I'm going to stick an ice pick into my ears to be sure I never hear this crap.
Posted by Curtis Interruptus on November 15, 2011 at 9:22 PM · Report this

Add a comment