Graded on a Curve:
Lou Reed and Metallica,
Lulu

Lou Reed was so full of shit in his lifetime it was impossible to ever take a word he said seriously, so when he said of this unlikely 2011 collaboration with Metallica that it was “the best thing ever done by anybody,” it was easy to write it off as just more empty punk braggadocio by the guy who invented empty punk braggadocio.

And it was even easier to write off given that said collaboration, Lulu, is regularly featured on worst-ever album lists and received a largely hostile response from everybody from Pitchfork (who gave it a damning 1.0 out of 10) to noted rock critic Chuck Klosterman who wrote, “If the Red Hot Chili Peppers acoustically covered the 12 worst Primus songs for Starbucks, it would still be (slightly) better than this.”

Me, I gave it a cursory listen when it was released and promptly filed it under S for Suck. But something called me back–Lou, whom I love and hate, is always calling me back–and I’ll be damned if this much derided collaboration doesn’t have more than its fair share of alternately brutal, tender, cold-blooded, and yes even majestic moments.

Sure, most of the songs on this “concept album”–which returns us to the scene of 1973’s equally controversial Berlin–go on far too long, and both Reed and the boys in Metallica go out of their way to pummel normal human eardrums into cowering submission (just check out the hammering and unrelenting “The View,” on which Lou actually bellows). And it’s definitely not for fans of “Melodic Lou,” who opted to stay home during these proceedings.

The LP opens with the bracing “Brandenburg Gate,” which swells on a titanic riff over which Lou monotones while James Hetfield cries, “Small town girl!” over and over again. It’s a strong opener on an A Side that is definitely stronger than the B Side and is followed by “The View,” which is all heavy metal caterwaul over top of which Reed boasts about having no morals and wanting to see you on the floor. “Pain and evil have their place,” he says, and says is the right word as Lou can’t be bothered to sing on this LP.

“Pumping Blood” is a very annoying song, but then again so was “Sister Ray.” Very brutalistic, fascistic even, the music; as for Lou he keeps going on about his “coagulating heart” and asks, “If I waggled my ass like a dog prostitute/Would you think less of me?” I don’t know, Lou, but I really don’t like visualizing you doing it.

I suspect “Pumping Blood” is the number that separates the loyal from the fellow travelers and the song that provokes the latter into turning off the LP forever; just as with “Sister Ray” and Metal Machine Music Lou seems to be saying “Will you stick with me even if I put you through Hell?” And not since Lou sang “Whip it to me, Jim” has he been so in-your-face confrontational; “You’re my fans and I despise you,” he seems to be saying. “What are you going to do about it?”

I followed Lou through “Pumping Blood” with some reluctance, but I’m all for “Mistress Dread,” which comes as close to applying the principles of Metal Machine Music to real song as Reed ever got. It doesn’t drone, exactly, but it comes close; to me it sounds like some insane generator designed to reproduce the sound of a human heart being flooded by fear-induced adrenalin. “Mistress Dread” is undoubtably the most unapologetically vicious (and courageous) piece of music Reed had put his name to in decades, and I applaud both him and Metallica for making it.

“Iced Honey” is a great cut with an actual melody and the easiest on the ears track on the LP; it’s a street hassle of a tune what with Lou rapping like the Lou of yore before joining Hetfield on the choruses. I don’t know what “See if the ice will melt for you” means but I’ll betcha the speed freak Lou of olden days was a fan of iced honey so maybe this track was his idea of a walk down memory lane.

“Cheat on Me” is dull and goes on for far too long; Lou spends most of his time asking “Why do I cheat on me?” (I dunno, Lou, because you know you can get away with it?) while Metallica kicks the shit out of a single riff for 11 plus minutes. “Frustration” is aptly titled–the band futzes around and so does Lou, who wonders what it feels like to be “dry and spermless like a girl,” says he wants so much to hurt you before saying he wants you to be his wife, and in general runs through what he calls his “lexicon of hate.”

“Little Dog” features acoustic guitar and some so-so versifying by America’s greatest rock’n’roll misanthrope over a quiet drone; his talk about “cold-hearted pussy” gives me pause, but I generally find myself so bored by the interminable going-ons that I can’t be bothered to figure out if he’s a misogynist or just hates cats. The general vibe here is bleak beatnik poetry reading meets enervating acoustic drone, and I can’t imagine the demographic for such a thing is very large.

“Dragon” is all feedback and monotone and a static bore, what with everybody’s favorite naysayer nattering on “Oh you think you’re so special blah blah blah.” That is until the band finally kicks in, at which point we’re treated to the sound of Reed reading some leftover notebook poetry over what amounts to a subpar Metallica song. When he gets to talking about “the smell of your armpit” I generally check out, which is too bad because it’s at just about that point that Hammett starts playing some really skewed shit on guitar.

If at a little over 11 minutes “Dragon” is twice as long as it should be, the hellishly and hauntingly beautiful “Junior Dad” somehow manages to astonish at 19 and a half minutes, and makes for an elegiac closer to a sometimes powerful but deeply flawed album. Reed’s evocation of loss and yearning (“Would you come to me/If I was half drowning/An arm above the last wave/Would you come to me/Would you pull me up”) is moving, but the real victor here is the music; Metallica sets at the plaintive melody like real Volga Boatmen, while the veritable symphony of string musicians deliver up a drone as great as any on a Velvet Underground album.

Lulu is a challenging, mystifying, and even infuriating album, and I can fully understand why it met with such hostility and scorn. It’s not for the faint of heart, folks who expect to hear fully realized songs instead of pummeling riffs played over and over for a long time, or people who love “Perfect Day” and “Sweet Jane.” Or Metallica fans for that matter.

But I’ll give Lou this; not since the second Velvet Underground album had he given himself over so completely to the gods of noise, fragmentation, and chaos. Is this collection of songs, considered as a whole, a realization of his awful vision? Not really. It’s simply too repellent. While I often find my way back to the uncompromisingly noisy and bleak White Light/White Heat I will likely file Lulu away along with Metal Machine Music and never listen to it again. But who knows? Maybe repellent was what Reed was aiming for.

I give Reed credit for misanthropic chutzpah; in its own way Lulu is every bit the fuck you to his audience that Metal Machine Music was. That said, I do wish he’d stop wagging his ass like a dog prostitute. It’s unseemly, and not really the kind of thing that sells records.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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