Lou Reed and Metallica
How you engage with the Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration, Lulu , may depend on how much of the backstory you know. If you come to it blind, it might seem like strange, macabre fun, starting with the first rhyme of “Brandenburg Gate,” “I would cut my legs and tits off/When I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski/In the dark of the moon.” If you listen to the music and don’t follow the words too closely, you might feel like what you’re hearing is Reed free associating a storyline about betrayal, sex, and death. And you’ll hear how his words feed off of Metallica’s energy, and how Metallica feeds off of Reed’s playful sense of darkness.
But, of course, the words are important, and if you read the lyric sheet, you get a clearer picture of the title character. Lulu is both abuser and victim, wicked and powerful and vulnerable and trapped by circumstance. At times, James Hatfield’s wailing refrains seem to be Lulu’s inner voice, as on “The View,” where he sings, “I am the root/I am the progress/I’m the aggressor/I am the table.” That’s followed by “Pumping Blood,” it’s bombast belied by Reed singing the final line, “In the end it was an ordinary heart/Pumping blood.”
It’s impressionistic, but specific characters emerge in Lulu and her lovers. Reed sings from Lulu’s point of view frequently, but on “Frustration,” he takes on the persona of one of her jealous lovers, watching Lulu and her painter lover, singing, “I wish that I could kill you/But I too love your eyes.” And if you drill down a little further, you’ll find this is the soundtrack to a 2011 production of The Lulu Plays by 19th century dramatist Frank Wedekinds, who also wrote Spring Awakening. The characters and plot gain more structure and specificity if you know the story of the play.
Lulu is a difficult album. It’s not background music, and if you’re not willing to dive into the story on some level, you’re going to get lost. The story dictates the structure of the two-disc set, and the individual songs build and stretch the tension without much respite. “Cheat On Me” and “Dragon” are both just over eleven minutes long, and the closing track, “Junior Dad,” is just under twenty minutes. It takes some commitment, and maybe a little homework, to get the most out of the album.
Reed is able to match the band’s intensity, if not through the singing than through the pain in the lyrics. Hetfield’s pointed growl makes for an interesting contrast to Reed’s more spoken-word approach. Reed met Metallica in 2009 at the 25th Anniversary of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and got along well enough to want to record together. The original intention was to record some underappreciated tunes from Reed’s catalog, but listening to Lulu, it’s harder to imagine a collaboration built on recording one song at a time. Lulu gave them something to dive into on more equal terms, and it will be interesting to see if “Loutallica” becomes a more than a one-off project.