On Sept. 18, a 90-second preview of “The View” appeared on YouTube. Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Whoopi Goldberg were, fortunately, not involved, but the reaction was just as negative. This was the first taste of the curious collaboration between legendary New York boho Lou Reed and Bay Area thrash pioneers Metallica, but it was not a triumphant unveiling. Instead, the announcement turned into a disaster that seemingly confirmed every objection to this partnership—that Reed and Metallica were mismatched, that they were innovators who hadn’t innovated in ages, that they might be having a laugh at their fans’ expense. Comments ranged from “comedy album of the year” to “This makes St. Anger look like Master of Puppets.” Even those who professed to like the track qualified their defense almost apologetically: “GUYS, ALL OF THE SONGS CAN’T BE THAT BAD,” wrote one commenter. “Be open minded, Jesus.”
Since then, it’s been clear that Lulu will live and die in the comments section, and already the prevalent narrative is that the album isn’t just a bomb, but a nuclear bomb. It’s Qwikster, Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign, Bucky Larson, and the Boston Red Sox all rolled into one. Fans of both artists may be bracing for the worst, but there is a strange bloodsport to their cringes and comments: We relish the possibility of a rare faceplant and desire an album so empirically heinous that everyone agrees on its failure. We want an event.
Now that Lulu is finally out in stores, however, the truth is much more complicated and much less fun. The album isn’t as colossally bad as we were led to believe or even might have hoped. Don’t misread: It’s not an especially good album, but its failures are noble rather than ignoble—byproducts of ambition rather than hubris. In a weird way, that makes its flaws more sympathetic and turns it into something of a grower, as Reed’s lyrics become seemingly more sensical and Metallica’s thrashing more thunderous with each listen.
Reed wrote most of these songs for a production of German playwright Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, which are steeped in the kind of explicit sex and violence that we don’t typically associate with the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Immediately the sense of playacting is apparent: “I’m just a small-town girl,” Reed sings on opener “Brandenburg Gate,” the first of several instances of first-person gender switching. It’s actually a welcome twist in metal, which remains one of the most male-dominated genres and one that rarely addresses sexual politics—at least not from a female perspective—in song. That may be the finest and most redemptive aspect of Lulu, although possibly the one to receive the brunt of the listener’s ridicule.
Even so, too often Reed’s songwriting relies too heavily on easy degradations and uninspired repetition of phrases until they become meaningless. “Why do I cheat on me?” he asks pointedly on “Cheat on Me.” “Why do I cheat on myself?” There aren’t too many other lyrics, and the song is nearly 10 minutes. Within a larger lyrical framework, those might have proved powerfully self-searching questions, yet the song just rambles aimlessly and pointlessly, without developing that idea or reaching any kind of epiphany.
Reed and Metallica are walking a very fine line, of course, so when the album falters, it falters into self-parody, especially on “Frustration,” which details a wish for degradation and depravity. It’s hard not to giggle at the self-seriousness with which Reed intones lines like “dry and spermless like a girl” and “I puke my guts out at your feet.” Perhaps he intends to recall some of the more squalid lyrics from his early material, but his lyrics here are so divorced from any concrete setting or specific context that they sound laughable and ultimately meaningless. These songs about walking on the wild side rarely ever get truly wild.
When they do, the full potential for this collaboration comes into startling focus. The metal riffs on opener “Brandenburg Gate” are unnervingly heraldic as they set the scene and sneakily comment on the action, and James Hetfield actually recalls like the menacing barker of Master of Puppets on “The View” as he rattles off dada pronouncements: “I am the view! I am the table!”
Metallica actually sound more muscular here than they have on their past few albums, and Reed pushes his vocals well beyond his deadpan comfort zone. Perhaps the closer “Junior Dad” comes too late, but as it fades in and out over dissonant strings, the song shows both Metallica and Reed at their best: Kirk Hammett’s guitarwork is elegant and unshowy, and Lars Ulrich punctuates the verses with restrained cymbal crashes and a two-beat tattoo that threatens to break the songs open but, thankfully, never does.
Arguing persuasively for every one of its 19 minutes, “Junior Dad” is the least thrashy, least transgressive moment on Lulu, but it’s also the most real, the most memorable. The song points to what this collaboration might have been, and while this pre-ordained flop most likely won’t warrant a follow-up, we’d do well to anticipate the continuation of Loutallica.