Album review: Lou Reed & Metallica, ‘Lulu’ (Warner Bros.)

October 28, 2011

Many are the long-suffering fans of ol’ Uncle Lou who’ve been eagerly yearning for the crotchety genius to abandon the “bespectacled professor standing at the lectern” routine of the last two decades and, you know, rock out again… to say nothing of recruiting a band that might challenge him once more, instead of kissing his butt and welcoming his every harebrained notion (including that silly tai chi stuff of late). So, contrary to the reaction of some the news that Reed had partnered with Metallica wasn’t necessarily frightening or laughable.

True, for hope to blossom, one had to believe in the possibility of redemption. Metallica has been on the pathetic decline toward becoming a soft, bloated, ballad-peddling corporate parody of itself at least since its self-titled album in 1991 (or since “One” from …And Justice for All in ’88, if you really want to be harsh about it). And Reed’s recent track record hasn’t been much better. Some love New York (1989), but his last beginning-to-end great solo album was Legendary Hearts in ’83, or, if you want to be kind, Songs for Drella, the collaboration with his old band mate John Cale in tribute to their mentor Andy Warhol in 1990.

The key word there was collaboration. Reed always has been best when he’s deigned to temporarily check his massive ego long enough to engage in a real partnership, and he’s turned to the wild and woolly world of heavy metal before with some success. For the tour supporting ’73’s Berlin, he famously recruited Detroit’s firebrand guitar duo Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, with whom he then made one really bad studio album (Sally Can’t Dance) and one absolutely classic live set (Rock ’n’ Roll Animal) before they went on to become billion dollar babies with Alice Cooper.

So Lulu could have worked. Really.

Instead, the album goes horribly, massively, almost inconceivably wrong, instantly vying for a place as perhaps the very worst that Reed has given us.

Some would say the godfather of punk never could sing, but in the past, he couldn’t sing with one of the most distinctive styles in rock, right up there with Dylan. Now, he can’t even mumble-talk his way through the lyrics with any form of emotion, inflection, or even mere intelligibility.

And, oh, those lyrics! Reed takes sole credit for penning the words, but he sounds less like the writer of gothic horror he seems to want to channel (remember that tribute album to Poe a few years back?) than an insane, decrepit, venom-spewing sack of human detritus cursing the universe as it walks past him on the sidewalk without so much as a pitying glance. “I would cut my legs and tits off/When I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski/In the dark of the moon/It made me dream of Nosferatu/Trapped on the isle of Doctor Moreau/Oh wouldn’t it be lovely?” he croaks in the opening lines of “Brandenburg Gate,” which kicks off disc one. “Sunny, a monkey then to monkey/I will teach you meanness, fear and blindness/No social redeeming kindness/Or, oh, state of grace,” he wheezes nine songs later, near the end of “Junior Dad,” which closes disc two. And, no, things never get better in between.

For all his vaunted genius as a lyricist, however, Reed’s greatest moments have transcended language with sounds that are so mind-blowing that literal meaning becomes irrelevant. Who knows what “European Son” is about? Who cares? Yet rarely has an attempt to craft music intended to be loud at any volume, mercilessly pummeling, and unrelentingly rocking (that is, except when it's temporarily faking us out with more quiet but still unlistenable drones such as "Little Dog" and "Junior Dad" or a stray fluttering of acoustic guitar) seemed so flaccid, enervating, soulless, and static. And here, Metallica deserves equal blame, since the project gives the band co-credit with writing the music, though “writing” seems less appropriate than “riffing,” so rare is any evidence of actual song craft.

And the sonics are nothing to be proud of, either. James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett show no indication that they have any understanding of or sympathy for any of the diverse ways that Reed has approached the guitar, some of which rank with the most influential in rock history: the chaotic feedback eruptions of White Light/White Heat; the churning, intertwined rhythms of 1969 Velvet Underground Live; the heavy-metal grandeur of Rock ’n’ Roll Animal; the contained post-punk fury of those brilliant albums with Robert Quine, The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts, etc., etc. No, these boobs sound like the clowning showboats strutting their stuff up and down the fret boards on axes they don’t deserve to touch at Guitar Center on a Monday afternoon. Meanwhile, Lars Ulrich, who was an overrated drummer even before he grew intolerably sloppy and a heck of a lot slower 20 years ago, hammers away with maximum bombast and zero subtlety, making a heck of a racket without ever visiting the same Zip Code as a motivating groove.

And yet… Lulu could have worked. Really.

You’d be oversimplifying the causes of this disaster to say that Reed went wrong when he chose Metallica, and that this idea might have worked if he’d teamed up with, say, Mastodon, or Boris, or—Lord, what would this have been like?—High on Fire. Because even if he’d done that or anything similar, he’d still have had to remember what it was that made Lou Reed great when Lou Reed was as great if not better than almost any other rock god you’d care to name. And there just isn’t much evidence that he has a clue after all this time.

Star rating for Lulu: Zero stars.

Jim DeRogatis is the editor of The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side, published by Voyageur Press in 2009.