Remembering Lou Reed in light of Lulu…
As much as I’d like to think or say otherwise, I do not have my ear to the ground concerning everything that’s happening in music these days – what people are playing and where they’re playing it, what the new sounds are, who’s saying what about music, and so on.
However, for whatever reason, and in spite of various circumstances, I’ve managed to keep my ear to the ground within the heavy metal community for more than a decade. It’s a fairly easy thing to do: you find a heavy metal news source or two and follow them faithfully. For me, the constant has been Blabbermouth.net, which is something of an aggregator of happenings in the world of hard rock and heavy metal. It’s not my only source, but the site has been a mainstay of mine since shortly after it came into existence over a decade ago.
As a result of my attention to the constant stream of information coming from Blabbermouth and similar sources, I’m familiar with the strongly negative response that Lou Reed’s 2011 collaboration with Metallica, Lulu, elicited from fans, critics, and peers. The album didn’t sell well, and was a difficult listening experience for most, including this listener.
I reviewed it in 2011, shortly after its release. At the time, I tried to review it as fairly as I could. This was a difficult task, in retrospect, for two reasons:
1) I’m a fan of Metallica.
2) I’m a fan of Lou Reed.
While those two factors could be dismissed as trivial, I believe that part of what made that album so difficult to review is the juxtaposition of Lou Reed and Metallica. And this is one thought that has been gnawing at me ever since I read that the the collaboration was to occur.
A) If I were a Metallica fan – particularly an “old Metallica” fan – and I didn’t know anything about Lou Reed or his music, I would probably hate it.
B) If I were a Lou Reed fan, with no prior knowledge of – or concern with – Metallica, I would likely either love the ballsiness of the album, hate the way it sounds, or simply accept it as a continuation of the familiar Lou Reed ethos: doing whatever one wants to do.
C) If I just happened to hear it with no prior experience with either musical entity, I would likely still find it a difficult listen.
The problem occurred when considering the first two scenarios – particularly the first, because Metallica is a heavy metal group, and so most fans of the band expect to hear heavy metal when they put on an album with the group’s name on it.
As a person reviewing the record back in 2011, I wanted to be open to both sides of the divide, but I found it very difficult to do so. Since I’m a fan of Metallica’s entire catalog, I was looking for… I don’t know: a super heavy album with Lou Reed speak-screaming over it? A more mellow (but heavy for) Lou Reed album with Metallica as the backing band? I’m not sure. The Metallica fan in me wanted to listen to it as a Metallica record, and the Lou Reed fan in me wanted a great Lou Reed record… and those two perspectives butted heads, creating a conundrum.
When I listened to it, I looked for the songs to touch me in some way, with their musical force, emotional depth, and/or beauty. Some of them – particularly “The View” and “Junior Dad” – did exactly that. Others failed to do so: most of the times that James Hetfield sang broke my attention to the songs, and sometimes Lou’s delivery grated against the music. I’m pretty certain that that was the point, which is fine, but as a listener there are certain experiences on the album that I don’t want to repeat. On the other hand, the songs that I did connect with I will always connect with.
Ultimately, what we got was just about what I had expected: a difficult listen with some bright moments where Metallica’s talents meshed well with Reed’s songs.
What we also got was a polarizing album that drew out the detractors en masse. Actually, detractors is just a nice word to use, considering the phenomenal amount of hatred that the album, along with Lou Reed and Metallica, received.
To many/most metal fans, it’s a joke. It’s “Metallica’s worst album, hands down.” It’s a “piece of shit.” “James is the table” is only the most recognizable of the many derogatory memes that the album spawned, and that one came from its strongest song and introductory single, “The View,” almost two months before the album was released. For many fans, it was the nail in the coffin of the career of a band that had been going downhill since somewhere between 1988 and 2003, depending on when fans determined the band had jumped the shark. It was proof that Metallica had nothing left in the tank.
In reality, it was a project. It was the fulfillment of the shared desires of both Reed and Metallica, to collaborate. As Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick put it:
Another way to view Lulu is the type of album that very few musical acts get to do: the 1% or less who reach that highest level, commercially and financially. These albums can only be done by acts who maintain their own creative control and feel the artistic impulses to challenge the very system that put them where they are. (…)
As part of the other 99% – far from wealthy, but grateful to have carved out a comfortable living based solely on playing and composing – I honestly don’t know what it’s like to be in that kind of top-tier position. I can only imagine the artistic inclinations I might feel if I were. So it feels only fair to withhold judgement as a musician and place Lulu in a proper historical context, with other iconic artists who have thrown their fans for a loop. (…)
Think about it: Lou Reed and the world’s biggest heavy metal band get together, bond over German Impressionism, create an almost-unlistenable album and release it to the world? If that’s not art, I don’t know what is.
As I’ve read comments and commentary over the course of the two years since its release, I’ve consistently found myself wondering what people were expecting. Did they think it was going to be Master Of Puppets-like music with Reed singing over it? Load-like with Reed singing over it? I just can’t identify with the idea that people were expecting something like either of those things, or anything related. And, to be honest, my least favorite parts of the album were the songs in the middle (and the opener) that sounded like Metallica playing Lou Reed songs in the style of Metallica, along with the songs that sounded like Lou Reed singing over Metallica’s discarded riff collection. The best parts of the album were the ones where the two entities met somewhere in the middle (“The View”) or went much closer to Reed’s side of the fence (“Junior Dad,” “Little Dog,” etc.).
In my review at the time, I said that Lulu is not a metal album. By that, I mean that it shouldn’t be approached as, or expected to be, the average listener’s conception of what metal is or sounds like. As such, I still shake my head when I read most of what writers and commenters have to say about it.
Lulu turned out to be Lou Reed’s final release before his death. Some people are saying that it’s a shame that it was, and that he went out on a low note. I prefer to think otherwise. I believe that it was exactly what he said it was at the time: a dream come true. He was very happy with the album. To deny that, or to think otherwise, is to not have an understanding of who Reed was: a man who chose his own path, a tireless experimenter who loved writing and making new music and rearranging his old songs. Lou was a person who made a large number of disparate-sounding records throughout his career, with the people he chose to play with. And while, as an artist, he was always looking toward his next project – records, tours, different bands, other media – he got to work with Metallica at the end of his life, and I think he cherished that opportunity, experience, and result. He wasn’t a man to regret his decisions.
In looking through the thousands of blog posts about Lou Reed’s death over the past couple of days, it’s fun to see which songs people reference or link to remember him by. The most popular seem to be “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Walk On The Wild Side,” although I’ve seen references to virtually every era, from The Velvet Underground to Transformer, Berlin to Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, Metal Machine Music to Street Hassle, Blue Mask to Magic And Loss, Set The Twilight Reeling to Ecstasy to, yes, even Lulu. It’s safe to say, from these tributes, that the vast majority of Reed’s fans will remember the breadth of his work over the decades, rather than one album that certain people love to hate.
And Metallica will be fine.
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