'Abrasive, Sometimes Unpleasant, but Never Boring': A Reappraisal of Lou Reed and Metallica's 'Lulu'

Following James Hetfield's recent defence of the album, "Lulu" is back in the CD changer...

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Last week, Metallica frontman James Hetfield made headlines when he defended the band's critically derided collaboration with Lou Reed, "Lulu."

"'Lulu' wasn't accepted as much as we accepted it," he stated. "I'm really proud that we did it. It was fun, it was an adventure."

"Fun" and "adventure" aren't the terms I'd use to describe the album. "Impenetrable" was actually the word that came to mind. Playing "Lulu" for the first time was an abrasive, difficult listening experience. In spite of being a huge Metallica fan, as well as an appreciator of Lou Reed, I could never bring myself to give it a second spin.

But spurred on by Papa Het's heartfelt appreciation for the record, I decided to go back into the abyss. Metallica's most controversial record (that isn't "St. Anger") is back in the CD changer. May the gods have mercy...

77 Minutes Later...

Well, that was an experience. Not an entirely pleasant one, but I got through it. And while I still can't say that I like "Lulu," I have a greater appreciation for it this time around. I'll come onto that in a minute. But first, there is one negative I have to flag up.

Lou Reed and Metallica as Collaborators Just Doesn't Work...

I'm not the first person to have said this, but it bears repeating here. "Lulu" is not the sound of two acts collaborating. It's the sound of Lou Reed doing his thing in one corner and Metallica doing their thing in another. Here are two acts that have fundamentally different approaches to making music - Lou Reed the discordant, experimental art-rocker-cum-poet, Metallica the masters of precision-based thrash riffery - approaches in which it is difficult to find a workable middle-ground.

Metallica might be the most famous heavy metal band in the world, but that doesn't mean they're the right band to back Lou Reed. That's often very clear throughout "Lulu's" near hour-and-a-half running time. While there are some moments where they manage to find a mostly-digestible middle ground - "Junior Dad," "Iced Honey" and, in spite of its preoccupations with furniture embodiment, "The View" - the fundamental disconnect between the two factions stops "Lulu" from ever becoming a truly enjoyable listening experience.

Not Enjoyable, but Interesting Nonetheless...

But then, the more I think about it, I'm not sure that "Lulu" is meant to be an enjoyable album. Not in the sense that Metallica's "Black Album" or Reed's "Transformer" are anyway. The subject matter of this record (based on the "Lulu" plays by Frank Wedekind, it tells the story of a sexually-enticing German dancer who falls into poverty and prostitution) doesn't exactly lend itself to anthemic heavy metal or hip, streetwise New York rock.

What I can say for "Lulu" is that, while often abrasive, and at points genuinely unpleasant to listen to, it is never boring. Certain aspects of the record are oddly compelling, if not entertaining, thought provoking if not entirely satisfying. You could never call it a great album, but it isn't without merit, and I'm glad that the parties involved tried to give it a go.

And You've Got to Give Them Props for Putting Their Collective Balls on the Line...

You've got to hand it to Metallica and Lou Reed for a) having the balls to experiment and b) having the balls to share the results of that experiment with the general public. Those are risks that most artists of their respective pedigrees would never take.

When bands get to a certain age - usually 50 and over - it's easy for them to rest on their laurels. Accepting that their days as innovators as over, you see a lot of heritage acts who are more than happy to tour their greatest hits, put-out cookie-cutter copies of their most celebrated albums and reap the financial rewards.

Admittedly, Lou Reed was never one of those people. Too artsy, too confrontational, he avoided the hits and toyed with his audiences until the last. For Metallica though, who have spent the better part of the last 20 years as a stadium-filling, crowd-pleasing heavy metal juggernaut, this was truly a step into the unknown. It was an experiment undertaken, not with commercial imperatives in mind (clearly, given that the album has sold sod-all copies since its release in 2011), but with the extent of expanding both bands' musical horizons. Art for art's sake is a rare thing these days, and I think you've got to give props to Lou and the 'Tallica boys for striving for it.

I'm not sure that "Lulu" could ever have really worked, but the only way to find that out was to get in the room and record it. While the album will never be on regular rotation in my CD changer, a third listen someday might not be off-the-cards as I first thought.

A great record? Certainly not. But an interesting one? Most definitely. I have a new found respect for Metallica and Lou Reed for making it happen.

By Alec Plowman

25 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Bram_Claes
    I think the problem is that most of those who hated it were Metallica fans, who viewed it as a Metallica album. It is not, it's a Lou Reed album foremost
    korinaflyingv
    Yeah that's the thing, it just doesn't fit into Metallica's back catalogue at all, although in some ways it's building off the weird atmosphere of St Anger. It makes perfect sense in context of Lou Reed's canon though.
    divoz
    no it doesn't. Coming from someone wo actually listens to Lou Reed
    AnthonyWabo
    I think it's a shit album if i consider it a Metallica album. I also think it's a shit album if i consider it a Lou Reed album. I think it's a shit album if i look at it as an experimental collaboration. I think it's a shit album in any way i listen to it and i gave it those 3 FUCKIN' long and exhausting listens so i can find even one excuse for this pile of shit! Yeah, there were like 15 seconds that were pleasant on Junior Dad, the clean riff was nice... That's it. *awaits the hipster sh!t award* <--- at least it will be in unison with the sound of this album!
    Charlie4
    If people want to listen to experimental music go find some bands on ProgArchives or even some free jazz . Only listened to 5 Minutes of this and that was terrible. After Re-Load Metallica pooped under the table. Sorry James.
    blooddrunk
    It includes the lyrics 'A puny body and a tiny dick / A little dog can make you sick'. This is pure garbage. not even the most up-himself wannabe poet could ever consider that good or approaching art.
    korinaflyingv
    I disagree. The inventor of punk collaborating with a highly punk-influenced metal band makes perfect sense. Metallica riffing + hypnotic repetitiveness really works for Lou Reed's style I think. It's definitely not the most polished album with regards to composition but it's got a unique atmosphere to it. It's a good 6/10 IMO. Solid 8 for inventiveness.
    Mr RafaelD
    That´s the first time someone shares my point of view regarding this album. The atmosphere brought by Metallica, bringing confusion and disorder, and somewhat calm singed/talked lyrics by Reed makes it interesting and diverse from that point of view, something which I have never heard before. Nevertheless, James became a table, and Reed brought something interesting to the table.
    estebanfumero07
    People try so hard to make this some "avant-garde experimental musical exploration" just to sound interesting. It's a shit album. Any way you look at it. It is not enjoyable. "It doesn't try to be enjoyable" well, that doesn't make it a good album. It's shit. It must be left at that.
    blooddrunk
    Is it in vogue to start defending abortions nowadays? No matter how you word it - this album is ass. Its awful pseudointellectual nonsense written by men long since past their prime drunk with money.
    Aryan Death Man
    The big mistake was to release that god-awful table song as the first single.Thats the worst song by far on that album.If they released a song like Junior Dad or Brandenburg Gate at first,the reaction wouldnt be as horrifying as it is today.The album is 6 out of 10 for me.
    metalhead983877
    As a whole, I didn't really like the album, but there are definitely some highlights in there. For example, I think the main riff from "Dragon" is fucking amazing in my opinion.
    iTitan
    Most of the people out there think this is a Metallica album, nut it's not. The music yes is written by Metallica but only the music.
    Daysleeper76
    This album was doomed from the start. Metallica fans were never gonna like it because it's way too "Lou". Casual Lou Reed fans were never gonna like it because it's not "Transformer" or "Loaded". The fact of the matter is, if you look at Lou's entire catalogue, Lulu makes total sense. Lou Reed has only ever made one kind of record. And that's whatever kind of record Lou wanted to make at the time. And if you look at Metallica's first few albums, it makes total sense. Like it or not (and yes, that is an opinion), "Lulu" is totally abrasive and uncompromising. Much like "Kill 'Em All" and "White Light /White Heat". Rather you like the album or not isn't of much consequence. It brought Metallica back to not giving a shit, and was another in a long line of Lou not giving a shit.
    Eduardocardoso
    I ain't giving them anything for this album. They didn't put themselfs on the line or anything like that, they are a well established band and if they make a "mistake", all they do is simply stick to their old clasics, unless they really wanna go on what, for other people, was considered a "mistake". Nevertheless, I'm not a metallica fan, but my god,
    Le-Mat
    If I learned anything from listening to Metallica since I was 12, was tolerance, independance, the need of evolving with your creations, exploring other stuff, not locking yourself in one narrow mindset. Yes, I started with Load and ReLoad, got so fascinated I went back and soaked everything they recorded (as long as I was able to get it) and cherished all of it. And yes, I thought St. Anger was weird, and not so Metallica, but I like this one on it's own terms, and I pop up this f&cker every once in while. But with Lulu, damn, I think they've set themselves a goal to prove me - "no, you can't be that loyal and openminded. We'll show you we can do something so unlistenable, obonxious, annoying, call it art and make it even more pretentious than even you won't stand it" Well guys, mission accomplished. Well done.
    Le-Mat
    And with all seriousness, it's been years since that. Let's do ourselves a favor and just forget this unfortunate abortion. Let it sink into oblivion.
    munkyslayer3456
    I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE I AM THE TABLE