Stand too close to Lulu, Lou Reed and Metallica's new collaboration-concept-album, and you risk collateral brickbats. "If the Red Hot Chili Peppers acoustically covered the 12 worst Primus songs for Starbucks, it would still be (slightly) better than this." That's Chuck Klosterman. "Unquestionably the nadir of Metallica's career... This horribly conceived circle jerk of an album." That's Adrien Begrand. "Turgid Weimar schlock." That's my friend Mimi.
The point is that there's a lot of rising to the occasion going on.
Lulu has upset everybody. Metallifans are disgusted with it; Lou's old lovers are turned off. In its first week it shifted around 15,000 copies: not bad for a Lou Reed record, but a commercial cratering for Metallica, whose last album Death Magnetic, at the same point, was approaching sales of half-a-million. Conceptually, Lulu is a Reedian gloss on the plays of scandalous German dramaturge Frank Wedekind: Berlin-saturated, sex-and-death-fixated, streetwalking, knives, blah, the very worst of Lou, potentially. One more swirl in the cisterns of abjection, etc. And then he brings in Metallica—Metallica, who can barely recognize their instruments outside a state of stadium-crushing heaviosity—to explore the material, to improvise, to feel. An epic misfire, surely.
Now then: Before I advance the counter-case, let me make one thing clear. Cheap contrarianism, the glib and sensational flipping-around of whatever-it-is, appeals to me not at all. It's a low journo-trick, on a par with writing "As so-and-so famously said" about a quotation you just read for the first time. Nor is it critical gallantry that brings me to my feet in defense of Lulu. If the record is crap, then let the people say so. But I don't think the record is crap. In fact I love it, and here's why.
- The sound. By this I mean not just the production, which is crisp and spacious, but the actual sound of Lou with Metallica: his moody electro-drones beneath their guitars, and his desiccated half-singing over their riffs. Metal vocals traditionally embed themselves in the grid of the song, its changes and emphases and so on: Lou has his own metrical sense, a rambling across the beat, and in this highly determined context, backed up and invigorated by the hog-bellows of Metallica's James Hetfield, it sounds magnificent.
- The lyrics. "I would cut my legs and tits off / When I think of Boris Karloff..." Make what you will of these, Lulu's first lines, but you're going to have to make something. Lou is an old master of categorical explosion, blowing up for decades now the lines between good and bad, ghastly and hilarious, cruel and sentimental, soulless and human—add to this the profound unsubtlety of Metallica, their irony-destroying downstrokes, and you have a truly rich aesthetic experience.
- The playing. Lars Ulrich has been one of mega-metal's less natural drummers, a stiff-armed thumper with a useful awareness of his own limits, but listen to him by God duet with Lou during "Pumping Blood," listen to him match the staggering Lou-prosody with fragmented fills of his own. It's like John Densmore and Jim Morrison doing "When the Music's Over"! Almost. The point is that there's a lot of rising to the occasion going on.
- "Junior Dad": just a beautiful song, exquisitely performed.
Give Lulu a shot. Give it another listen. Offer it what Lou would call your "coagulating heart," and you will be rewarded. Says me.