Frustration: a review of Lou Reed & Metallica’s ‘Lulu’

Lou Reed & Metallica – Lulu

When Metallica and Lou Reed announced that they had come together to collaborate on an album of songs, I was excited.  I was interested to hear what they might come up with – and, truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  However, given that Metallica were collaborating with Lou Reed, I assumed that there might be some weirder tracks and some simple song structures, but some tunefulness as well.

In September, “The View” was released as a single from the album, and I wrote about it here (you can also hear the unedited song on that post).  At that point, knowing Metallica’s penchant for not even coming close to releasing the strongest songs from their new albums as first singles over the past several years, I felt that if “The View” was representative of the potential of the album, it had a chance to be a better album than I had originally hoped.

Man, what a convoluted sentence that was.  But that in itself is indicative of how I feel after listening to Lulu, letting it sit, and listening to it again in parts over the past several weeks (it released in North America on November 1st).

James is the table – “The View” video:

Preliminary thoughts

As it turns out, “The View” is absolutely the strongest song on the album.  When it was released for download in September, it received mixed reviews (to put it kindly).  I thought that it had a nice combination of riffs, the lyrics weren’t bad – they sounded to me like like something Lou would write, and I’m thinking in particular of his lyrics on Magic and Loss (1992) – and Lou sounded both demanding and vulnerable while James’ vocal delivery was quite strong in the choruses.

I didn’t actually pick up the album until the second weekend in November, which is when I began to have access to my computer again.  I had committed myself to buying it, even though I was not terribly confident that it would be any good (and I did have a little trouble actually pulling the trigger).  And I don’t regret buying it – I’m glad to have experienced it.  That said, it is going to be difficult for me to willingly listen to most of it from here on out.

Metal fans: this is not a metal album.  It’s not even a Lou Reed album, and it’s certainly not a Metallica album.  It’s an experiment, an exploration, an exercise in artistic expression.  It’s a group of artists, who admire and respect one another, getting together to experience a creative climate that is foreign to each of them.  The results are not necessarily intended to be great in anyone’s minds but those of their creators.  The joy and satisfaction comes in the exercise, the process of creation.  I have a lot of respect for that type of experience.  Perhaps it has made each of the participants better musicians in some way.  But this is not an album of solid rock or metal song structures, standard aggressive lyrics, and so on – it’s explicit: the lyrics and sounds are uncomfortable to digest through much of the album, to varying degrees of effectiveness.

However, this is – truly – not a main work for either of these entities.  Lou Reed has always marched to his own beat, and there are elements of his other work in this album: the occasional dirge or droning, 18-minute song (a la “Sister Ray” or “Like A Possum”); the rapid-fire phrases that don’t necessarily rhyme or match the music in any discernable way; the lyrics that don’t shy away from sexual, violent, or taboo topics and word choices; singing vulgar lyrics from the point of view of a woman; etc. There are a couple of songs on this album that I am pretty certain would make decent Lou Reed (with his band) songs, and, indeed, I wish there were a version of this album available that consisted solely of Lou’s own recordings of the tunes, whether they be the demos that he sent to Metallica originally or some finished product with his longtime mates Mike Rathke (guitar), Fernando Saunders (fretless bass) and Tony “Thunder” Smith (drums).  I’m almost 100% certain that I would ultimately prefer either of those options to this recording.

The songs

There are moments that I enjoy on Lulu.  “The View”, as mentioned above and in my earlier post, is the first.  The second is the main section of the closing track, “Junior Dad.”  The nineteen-plus minute album-closer doesn’t really get started until 55 seconds in, and is little more than a droning wash of sound after the 10:45 mark.  However, for more than nine minutes, I enjoy the song.  Without digging too deeply, the lyrics read like a prayer to a long-lost deadbeat failure of a father, but to me they ring a bit more universally than that particular relationship.  The musical accompaniment is a slow, gently distorted bed of coals under Lou’s singing (yes, he basically sings the whole song…), and provides a perfect complement to the subject matter.

Finally, there is track nine, entitled “Dragon”.  Clocking in at more than eleven minutes, the song starts with Lou talking over ambient droning and washes of distorted guitar before picking up at 2:45 or so with a pretty cool riff that nevertheless sounds like a segue to the end of a good mid-paced hard rock tune – for the next nine minutes. Ultimately, this song works better than the majority of Lulu‘s tracks – the pace and the character of the riffs work well with Reed’s vocal delivery.

To my taste, these three are without question the best songs on the album.  There are other moments that I like – the drumming in parts of the ambient spaces in “Pumping Blood”; a couple of the riffs in “Frustration”; and so on – but in general, there are many moments that fall way below even the “artistic” scale…

Opening the record is “Brandenburg Gate”, which is the type of track that I would skip on a Lou Reed album.  It is a boring, forgettable album opener.  After “The View”, “Pumping Blood” rips for a couple of minutes and then dies away into noise and drone, rising and falling while Lou rants on and on about pumping blood – it’s supposed to be macabre, I guess, but it eventually just kind of grows annoying to me.

The middle of the album is, to me, a solid block of music that is virtually unlistenable for various reasons.  “Mistress Dread” is more than six minutes of Metallica basically alternating between two fairly simple thrash riffs that are played at breakneck, “Hell Awaits” or “Rise”-ish speed – for over six minutes – while Lou talks/croons very slowly. For more than six minutes.  Did I mention that?  It’s kind of bizarre, and awkward to listen to.  I can’t listen to it straight through, to be honest.  Then we come to two songs, “Iced Honey” and “Cheat On Me”, that I think I would prefer to hear as Lou Reed solo band tracks.  In these, as well as in the previously mentioned “Brandenburg Gate”, I really, really wish that James Hetfield hadn’t added vocals (“ICED HUNNEEE!!”; “Small Town GIRRRRLLL!” in the first track; etc.) – to my ears, they bring globs of cheese factor to songs that already don’t work well with Metallica.  In general, this three-song block is an automatic skip for me, from this point forward.

“Frustration”, the title of this post, has some interesting lyrics at the beginning before falling in quality as the song progresses.  The first riff under the vocals basically copies the main lick that dominates “Iced Honey”, a I-to-minorIV repetitive lick that is ultimately lackluster – I’m sad to see that this riff was used in one song repetitively, but to see it twice is unfortunate.  Then again, Lou is known to reuse riffs and even whole songs on the same album (here again I’m thinking of Magic and Loss), so it’s not surprising.  The initial heavy riff is pretty cool, and when they play it later in the song it has some good energy.  However, this isn’t one of my favorites on the album.  A couple of competent riffs do not make a good song.

“Little Dog” is something of a departure from the rest of the album in that it’s the quietest track, with the main licks being played on a down-tuned acoustic with distorted guitars adding color.  It’s not a bad song, and I would listen to it again, but it’s not a strong song either.

The summation

And that’s the album. Ten songs, 87 minutes.  I would listen to “The View”, “Junior Dad”, “Dragon”, and “Little Dog” again.  And maybe “Frustration” and even “Pumping Blood” once in a great while, but those would likely be very rare occasions.  On the other hand, “Brandenburg Gate,”  “Mistress Dread”, “Iced Honey”, and “Cheat On Me” are all songs that I will never listen to again – there is virtually nothing that appeals to me about them, artistically or sonically, while in my opinion the other six tunes have interesting qualities that will bring me back to them to varying degrees.

Final thoughts

As I said above, this is not a typical album for either of these artists.  While I’m murkier about whether Lou Reed considers it his next project – he’s worked with so many people that it feels less like a side project in his case – this is definitely not a Metallica album.  I came into it expecting little, hoping for much, and in the end having a listening experience that brought moments of inspiration, but more moments of frustration and disappointment.  It reminds me of when I listened to Reed’s The Raven (2003), because whenever either of these artists releases an album, I hope to be challenged and inspired, but ultimately I want to like the work.

Unfortunately, while the lyrics have a certain cohesiveness – and they should, since they were written for use with a play – the music is disjointed stylistically; the atmospherics get tiresome; some of the riffs are beyond stagnant; the drumming ranges from effective to extremely poor; James’ vocals are sometimes appropriate and strong (“The View”) but usually weak and cheesy (the rest of the songs that he sings on); Lou sometimes overloads my brain with his haranguing raps, while on other occasions (“Mistress Dread”) his vocals are so deliberate that he makes me feel like I am listening to the song while I’m extremely hungover.

It’s not a metal album, and it’s not really a rock album.  It’s a work of sonic art.  It is vaguely related to Metallica’s music, as well as Reed’s sonic experimentations (particularly from the past ten years), but it’s certainly not the best of either artist.  And that doesn’t mean that it’s easy or fun to listen to, or that it’s good.  I’m truly glad that they made this album – because I like when artists experiment and take themselves out of their comfort zones – and I’m glad that I got a chance to hear it.  But I don’t really enjoy listening to it like I had hoped I would.

As far as grading it… I have a hard time putting numbers, letters, thumbs, stars, or anything else to music.  I have seen thumbs downs, half-stars, 1.5 stars out of five, 1.5 stars out of four, threes or fours out of ten, and so on. According to Metacritic, the album has an aggregate score of 41/100 as of today.  Kerrang gave it a 60/100, and Uncut gave it an 80.  The Buffalo News gave the 1.5/4 stars that I saw, while Blabbermouth gave it a 3/10 and its readers have given it less.

There are many different perspectives on the album, but I don’t know that I’m willing to embrace anyone else’s.  I stated my own opinions on the subject in the previous paragraphs, and stand by their validity.  Grading this is more difficult because it’s a collaboration, a side project, or whatever one wants to call it.  It’s likely a one-time thing, and as such is an aberration in their respective careers, particularly in the case of Metallica.

That said, I like parts of it.  I don’t really like the whole of it.  It disappoints me, frustrates me, but I do enjoy certain moments.  However, if you are expecting Metallica’s Death Magnetic 2, Lou Reed’s New York 2, or anything anywhere close to a combination of them, don’t – just don’t even waste your money or time – because you’ll be way more disappointed or outraged than I could ever be about this record.

* * *

And now, it’s time to listen to something else for a while.  ^.^

Post Script

For an excellent, well-written take on the album from one of Metallica’s peers, check out Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick’s review and his perspective on the validity of the project.  I was very glad to read this – it’s more mature and level-headed than just about anything else I’ve read about the record.


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