When it was first announced that legendary metal band Metallica were to collaborate with the even more legendary Lou Reed on a studio project, eyebrows were raised.  Aside from both having a fairly uncompromising approach to music, neither artist had much in common: Reed, a consummate story-teller, has recorded a body of works which rely on the wordiness and on the small details, while Metallica occupy the other end of the scale, often being about the big and brash.  And yet, these strange bed-fellows embarked on a shared musical journey which, if Lou Reed is to be believed, would effectively end all musical journeys.  In a pre-release interview – amid a great amount of hype – Reed claimed the project spawned the best music he’d ever recorded. He went a step farther, suggesting ‘Lulu’ – the Loutallica album – was “maybe the best thing done by anyone, ever”.

Listening to the end product, let us assume this earlier remark was a great example of Reed’s dry wit.  ‘Lulu’, obviously, is not the best album in the world, set to eclipse every other work in history – how could it be?  In a few glimpses of (usually ragged) glory, however, this combination of world-class metal band and groundbreaking songwriter prove a force to be reckoned with.  Aside from those flashes of greatness, ‘Lulu’ is rather ugly and sometimes self-indulgent.   Even with Metallica’s sense of musical tightness, ‘Lulu’ is (mostly) not as tuneful is could have been…but that’s not to say there aren’t hidden gems within its sprawling ninety-plus minutes.

As ‘Brandenburg Gate’ begins, acoustic strumming (sounding a little like tuning up, it could be said) coupled with Reed’s instantly recognisable tones – it’s easy to cast your mind back to Reed’s late 80s/early 90s work.  This is particularly the case once he throws the listener in at the deep end lyrically, with the typically uncompromising sentiment “I could cut my arms and tits off when I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski, on the dark of the moon”.  Lou was never one to hold back lyrically and upon first hearing, this appears to be no exception.  Before long, Metallica join the arrangement with a heavy-ish, slow riff, over which Reed is forced to raise his voice.  Once he does so, his narrative delivery becomes less natural and his voice wobbles all over the place, barely hitting any right notes. With the music being such a dominant force, it’s not always so easy to hear his lyric and that’s a pity.  James Hetfield’s backing vocal is less forthright than many of his best performances and sounds hopelessly out of place against Reed.  Interestingly, even though the collective musicians have already gone to great lengths to persuade us this release does not sound like a Metallica album fronted by Reed, ‘Brandenburg Gate’ actually sounds halfway like you’d expect [unless, of course, you’re so ignorant of Reed’s career, you were dumb enough expect ‘Lulu’ to sound like ‘Satellite of Love’ and ‘Perfect Day’ beefed up with guitar riffs].

When samples of ‘The View’ appeared online some weeks before the album’s release, Metallica fans took to the discussion boards, asking if – and in some cases, hoping – those samples weren’t the real deal.  They hoped the sounds they were hearing were leaked for a joke, Ben Folds style.  It was not a joke; clearly most of ’em just don’t “get” Lou.  And although it was almost universally disliked by Metallica’s fan-base, ‘The View’ is actually far better than ‘Brandenburg’s Gate’.  For starters, Reed sounds more comfortable when he doesn’t have to complete with Hetfield’s growl.  The approach taken here, whereby Reed sings verses and Hetfield takes on chorus duties, is an effective one.  What’s more, the dark side of Reed’s song writing is given a whole new dimension when backed by Metallica’s hard-rock/metal approach.  With the aid of a slow, pounding riff which sounds like ’Tallica taking on a Black Sabbath classic, it’s so much easier to feel threatened by Reed when he starts insisting he is “the aggressor”.  Tales of suicide are nothing new in Reed’s work, but here, the topic takes on a much darker mantle.  Undoubtedly, the more small-minded among Metallica’s fan base will prefer it once Reed is quiet; if so, they at least should get some enjoyment during the number’s coda: the music speeds up a little – in keeping with “classic” Metallica – and Kirk Hammett takes centre stage for a reasonable solo.   It may have been panned, but ‘The View’ is actually one of ‘Lulu’s better offerings.

With ‘The View’ upping the ante a tad in terms of listening pleasure, things slacken off with ‘Pumping Blood’, with an uncompromising approach, that’s far too intense.  Following some grinding strings, Reed repeats the words “pumping blood” several times over a huge riff which fits somewhere between a march and a chug. His voice is atonal, and he sounds less natural; with the arrival of more lyrics, things really don’t improve much, since Reed sounds unsettled, perhaps way outside his comfort zone; it could even be said he sounds as if he’s free forming.  The only parts of this track which really work are the quiet atmospheric moments when the down-tuned riffs take a back-seat, and Lou takes a more typical approach to his work.  The rumbling bass lines, with drums and guitar vibrato/feedback set a great tone– providing a decent atmosphere for Lou’s almost spoken delivery.  Reed’s lyrics are slightly disturbing though, dealing with stabbings and prostitution – and even an unsubtle reference to inter-racial blow-jobs.  Over seven and a half minutes, the intensity of the music – and especially Reed’s lyric – becomes a listening endurance, but among the turmoil, those quieter parts aren’t completely void of charm.

The most striking thing about ‘Mistress Dread’ is it’s brutal riff.  On this number, Metallica play faster and harder than they have since their youth, tackling something which is cut from similar cloth to ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ (though obviously not as good).  Given such an intense musical backdrop, Reed should have been more in the zone than he ever is. His vocal, an absolute mismatch… wailing and crooning like a drunken old man; he has no regard for the pace or style of the music – just carelessly throwing out vocal lines whenever he sees fit.  Speaking the words of the album’s abused heroine, Reed utters lines such as “put a bloody gag to my teeth, I want you to degrade me”, which are  potentially shocking, even by Reed’s previous standards – but fact is, most of the lyrics are hard to decipher due to Reed’s woeful, woeful performance.  If his cover of ‘Peggy Sue’ represented a career nadir, then this must come pretty close.  Unlike ‘Pumping Blood’ this track can’t even create a perverse sense of pleasure.   If Metallica had any sense, they’d ask for their riff back and reuse it on something better.

If not for another monster riff, everything about ‘Iced Honey’ would sound like a Lou Reed solo outing.  Reed makes a better attempted at stretching his vocal – although still never quite manages anything resembling actual singing – and the arrangement is pleasantly upbeat.  While not as interesting as some of the other works scattered around the album, this is certainly a welcome distraction.  It’s important to have a reprieve from the ugly, darker elements on offer, and ‘Iced Honey’ brings a little lightness to the otherwise leaden album.  It’s perkier nature helps wash away the foul aftertaste left by ‘Mistress Dread’.  Although one of ‘Lulu’s most accessible numbers, there’s still ample room for improvement: for starters, it could do without Hetfield’s backing vocal, which is mildly distracting with its “recorded live to tape” looseness.  While such an approach is normal for Mr Reed, coming from Hetfield it just sounds like a rough demo take.  The hugely atmospheric ‘Little Dog’ is one of ‘Lulu’s most minimalist offerings.  Taking a spacious bluesy tone, Reed speaks over guitar reverb and acoustic riffs which sound like the roots a film score.  Stark and almost ambling in nature, the piece has a great musical emptiness. It’s especially fitting for Reed’s cold tone as he takes on the role of failure and weakness – the dog an unsubtle metaphor somebody easily dominated.  While the number shows Reed in a far more natural setting, Metallica’s contribution is practically non-existent – Reed could, in fact, have recorded the number prior to these sessions with a pick up band; most of the listening audience would be none the wiser.

‘Cheat on Me’ has an extended intro featuring string sounds and what sounds like electronic experimentation; it teases the listener by suggesting it’ll build to something grand.  In reality, that intro offers three-and-a-half minutes’ worth of directionless twaddle, followed by another minutes’ worth of the same twaddle accompanied by Reed repeating the line “why do I cheat on me?”  It could be said that Rob Trujillo’s bass noodlings have a pleasing warm sound, but that’s no reason for this style wanton self-indulgence (whether the band think of ‘Lulu’ as art or not). From this point on, Lars Ulrich marks a simple beat, while Hammett and Hetfield play staccato riffs.  Reed’s vocal improves a little once he makes it into the real meat of the number, but this is weakened by Hetfield’s occasional counter vocal which takes up the “cheat on me” line which even Reed eventually gave up on.  In truth, this number is bad – eleven and a half minutes of bad in all, none of which offer anything remotely interesting.  Metallica fans may welcome Hetfield’s presence back at the mic, but honestly, it’s a terrible performance.  It’s nowhere near as excruciating as ‘Mistress Dread’, though – it’s just overlong and serves no real point.  ‘Frustration’ is better, thanks to Metallica delivering the goods, riff-wise.  Lou winds up the tension lyrically, his voice spouting words which sound like an open letter.  If the track used this technique constantly it could have been superb, but it’s let down by huge sections of vaguely avant-garde material; for these Reed rants over a squealing string noise, or over Ulrich’s drums, which are bashed with an improvisational quality.  The ranting may be effective when given gravitas by Metallica’s full-on chug, but without, it’s ugly and directionless (or ‘artistic’, depending on your viewpoint; either way, best avoided).  The fast riff at the end helps create goodwill, but it’s really not enough – especially when you consider Metallica could have taken this route more often.

‘Dragon’ is incredibly difficult at first.  Reed shouts over various ugly guitar effects and even uglier clanging chords for almost three minutes.  With the arrival of Metallica, however, it turns on its head.  The riff is fantastic: like something the band would have recorded back in their ‘…And Justice For All’ days (with added bass, naturally).  The relatively straight-ahead chug represents almost everything you’ve ever loved about Metallica.  Even the angular, tortured lead guitar lines – presumably Reed’s musical contribution – don’t even diminish such a monolithic riff.  Reed’s vocal could have sounded a little out of step, but he’s actually given it more thought than before; shouting and speaking his lines in an bitter, angry manner which fits the music reasonably well.  Skip past the torturous intro and this quickly becomes another of ‘Lulu’s most rewarding listens.

After a brief droning intro, ‘Junior Dad’ settles into a groove which would befit many of Metallica’s ballads, potentially their most commercial music since ‘Nothing Else Matters’ back in 1991. The lyrics are said to have made members of Metallica cry, but none of Reed’s words here are anywhere near as touching as the thoughtful musical arrangement they have been given.  James’s rhythm guitar work adopts an absolutely gorgeous clean tone, while Lars’s drumming has a solid, yet far subtler tone than usual.  Six minutes in, the drones reappear – with Reed wailing over the top for a minute or so – and, naturally, this loses the momentum.  When Metallica are eventually allowed to re-find themselves a couple of minutes after the wailing, they pick up where they left off:  even by the time they decide to take the already great arrangement and beef it up, it honestly loses none of its power.  At ten minutes in, the tune vanishes completely and the orchestra – which had previously provided those intermittent drones – takes centre stage…to do nothing special; in fact, that orchestra does almost nothing at all!  The best part of the next ten minutes is best described as ambient orchestral minimalism.  Metallica should have been allowed to fill that time with variants on their brilliantly arranged, rather understated tune.  There’s a fantastic six minute edit of this almost twenty minute epic just begging to be made.  To say this track allows the listener to forgive ‘Lulu’s previous wrongs would be a huge stretch, but by the time Metallica hit their stride here, the ugliness of Loutallica’s previous musical mistakes at least begins to fade.

So, who exactly is this album’s target audience?  It’s far too “Metallica” for most of Lou’s fan-base, while the presence of Reed is enough to leave most metal fans cold.  For those open minded enough to actually like both Metallica and Lou Reed – and yes, such people do exist – it’s probably fair to say ‘Lulu’s complexities straddle a fine line between interesting and bewildering (while taking in various excursions via frustrating and appalling).  It’s funny: even though ‘Lulu’ has a fair amount of unlistenable qualities, it’s still not quite either party’s worst work.  Among hugely acclaimed albums, Reed has recorded some utter cack over the years, stuff that’s potentially less interesting than this; also, very little on ‘Lulu’ reaches the “recorded in a shed using a biscuit tin for a drum kit” awfulness of Metallica’s ‘St. Anger’.  At least the end sound of ‘Lulu’ has some uniqueness, a certain presence and a sense of pushing the odd boundary.

Many of you will hate ‘Lulu’, while some may be intrigued by its twisted darkness and Reed’s uncompromising, somewhat perverse style.  However, it’s hard to imagine anybody sane believing most of this to be among either Reed or Metallica’s best works, or actually wanting to listen to ‘Lulu’ very often.  Regardless of the ugly intensity which makes its mark on most of this release, it’s fair to say, both artistic parties should be commended on trying to break new ground so far into their combined careers – even if, at times, that equates to minimal listening pleasure.

October 2011