In Defense of Their Good Name is a column where we rise to the defense of bands or albums that are often criticized in the metal scene. If you have a band or album that you think should be defended, let us know.
Metallica exists in a reality distortion field as strong as any created by Steve Jobs. It is within the confines of this distorted reality where Metallica convince themselves that the snare sound on St. Anger was completely acceptable, Death Magnetic was a well mastered album, and unfortunately also where most of Lulu’s press was generated. Lulu is fundamentally not a Metallica album. It is a Lou Reed album. Production duties were split between Reed and his long time collaborator Hal Wilner. The music was not solely performed by Metallica but by Reed, other members of his solo band, and a string section. Metallica had a heavy hand in the creation of the album, but were still part of a larger whole and the single worst entity to be evangelizing the project. The amount of false expectations set up by Metallica were staggering. A punchline before anyone heard one note, Lulu was an album destined to fail. Being based on a German play adapted by Reed with random sounding lyrical phrases made an already easy target for ridicule come across as a fully formed SNL parody.
The truth is Lulu is a fantastic Lou Reed album which utilizes Metallica to varying degrees of success. At its worst, the incongruous nature of the music reinforces why people thought this collaboration was a terrible idea. At its best, the muscular riffing of Metallica adds a wonderful escalation to the sublime soundscapes created by Reed’s narration and the Velvet Underground-esque string drones.
Before we continue I want to address one indefensible weakness of the album: James Hetfield’s backing vocals. Trying to be a hyper-masculine Flavor Flav-style hype man to Reed’s understated vocals is a mood killer. I hate cilantro and try to avoid it in any meal. A stray taste of cilantro in my burrito won’t ruin my whole dinner, but it will ruin that bite. James Hetfield’s vocals are the cilantro sprinkled on top of Lulu.
The greatest successes on the album are when Metallica actively work to complement Reed’s songwriting. A great example is the Black Sabbath doom riff playing over string drones in “The View.” In the second half of “Dragon” the music shifts from avant-garde rock into classic Metallica riffing and the epic scale of the arrangement sounds genuinely earned. The sublime 11 minutes of “Cheat On Me” evoke a fictional collaboration between Stereolab and the Cult. The tight drumming creates a slick goth rock backbeat perfectly complementing the dominant synth melody. Reed’s intentionally off-key vocals fall into the pocket creating a moment of beauty. And speaking of beauty, the 20 minutes of “Junior Dad” transcend the entire project and sound as exciting as anything the Velvets would have played on White Light/White Heat.
Not everything works. “Mistress Dread” is an absolute mess. The riff is great and Reed’s vocals are great, but they do not fit together. While being the most accessible entry point for metalheads it is the worst introduction to the album. Likewise with “Pumping Blood” and “Frustration.” These are the songs that a casual listener scanning the MP3s for riffs would find the most palatable but are terrible. It is a catch-22. The songs that could most easily hook in the traditional metal audience are the songs that should turn just about anyone off.
So in the end we have a great Lou Reed solo record with one of the world’s greatest metal bands backing him up. You have some of the best drum sounds you’ve heard from Lars since the Black Album. More than half the record is extremely successful which is a higher ratio than a lot of other later-era Lou Reed records. There is a lot of great music on Lulu and as the snarky social media and blog comments fade into obscurity I hope people will be able to start hearing the album for what it is, and not what it falsely represents.