Reed and Metallica, Lulu
Okay, so it may be difficult to take seriously a band called "Lou Reed and Metallica." And it may be hard to take seriously an album that starts with "I would cut my legs and tits off thinking of Boris Karloff and Kinsky in the dark of the moon." But from the gritty Anton Corbin photo of the band on the back cover and Reed's statements that it's the greatest thing he's ever done, it appears that this band is deadly serious. And because I respect all artists involved, I'm willing to give it a chance, which is more than most critics are willing to give. Upon informing my brother of the existence of Lulu and that the critics are savaging it, his response was, "That's because they're jealous they can't be in a band with Lou Reed and Metallica." Amen, brother. A lot of these jealous critics are merely responding to the unlikely pairing of Lou Reed with Metallica, rejecting the idea on basic principle. But the pairing of these two is no more bizarre than pairing the Velvet Underground with, say, Nico. Much of the complaint is that Reed, with his blunt Manhattan sing-speak, sounds like he's not even in the same room as Metallica. But when has Lou Reed ever sounded like he's part of the band? Thankfully, Lou doesn't give a flying switchblade what anyone thinks about him or his music, least of all music critics, of whom he has recently stated, "There is no species of human that I have less respect for." This is a guy who has made a living out of feeding people rusty sheet metal, and they keep coming back for more. So I at least trust that he's following his muse.
Now in their fourth decade of laying waste to the earth, Metallica still sounds like the band that very few can keep up with. The real musical star here is Lars Ulrich, whose drums benefit from a good mastering job. The mastering of the album is hefty without being brickwalled. It's significantly quieter than Metallica's previous album, Death Magnetic, which was mastered so loud that it was in a continuous state of clipping. (Although this is audiophile treason, I actually kind of like how crunchy that album sounds, I just can't listen to more than two or three songs at a time.) In fact, the mastering was so bad, fans who had never even heard of the "loudness war" were returning their CDs. Rolling Stone actually highlighted the debacle as one of the most significant musical events of 2008 in their year-end issue. On Lulu, when you turn the volume knob to the right, the difference is obvious. Ulrich's drums had no dynamic range on Death Magnetic, and the cymbals sounded like tiny toy cymbals. On Lulu, Ulrich's drums are absolutely massive, which is appropriate, since he beats them like a three-legged mule.
Metallica and Lou Reed (image courtesy of hitcrave.com)
With this diesel train hauling down the track past the point of no return, there's some kind of perverse chemistry at work when Lou steps in front. "The View" is the most successful pairing of the two on the album. Lou's vocal finger in your face is backed by a slow metal dirge that eventually folds downward, with one of Metallica's signature shifts in dynamics, into James Hetfield taking his turn on the mic with the band in full flight behind him. The song just rocks, and as the second song on a two disc set, it gives you hope this is all going to work out. Are there heavy handed moments? You bet. Even by their standards, which is saying a lot. For instance, Lou and James could bark back and forth at each other the line "Why do I cheat on me?" about sixty times less (that's where I lost count) without doing any great disservice to the profundity of the question. (Lou: Why. Do. I. Cheat. On. Me? James: Wha-doo-ah-cheeet-awn-may-yaaaay-yaaah!) But if you're in the "Good lord, it's Lou Reed and Metallica!" frame of mind, why would you want it all to end?
As for Lou, what can you say other than that he's Lou Reed and there's nothing anyone can do about it. He stills talks his lyrics into the microphone with occasional rising emphasis, spitting out his absolute hatred for melody. His lyrics are still confrontational, violent, crude, riveting, cathartic, and even sometimes redemptive.
In the end, it's not the total disaster that many critics are foaming at the mouth about. In fact, I would sooner listen to Lulu than anything Metallica has done from Load to St. Anger, and I would rather listen to Lulu than 85% of Reed's solo back catalogue. The album has some brilliant moments. Unfortunately, the lyrical themes are so dark, brutal, and ugly, we have no sense of the fun these guys must have had in the studio. In fact, it's far and away the most explicit material I've ever heard, and yet there's no "Parental Advisory" sticker (apparently, you can get away with anything as long as you're white enough and it's not a hip-hop album).
So whether it's unbelievably, hilariously great, a gift from the rock gods in the attic of the insane asylum, or the worst album ever made may literally depend on your frame of mind at any given moment. I'm giving it a 6 out of 10 (instead of 5), just so I don't get on Reed's bad side. But I will say that everyone just needs to relax. It's after all Lou Reed and Metallica.