Let us now praise famous men who should probably know better but go ahead with their follies nonetheless. I speak, of course, of Lou Reed and Metallica, whose new collaboration Lulu has already attained legendary debacle status on its first official day of release. The AV Club’s Jason Heller gave Lulu one of its kinder reviews when he called it “not merely a failure, but one of the bravest, most fascinating failures in rock history.”
If you’re familiar with my well-documented Lou Reed fanboyism, you’re probably expecting me to declare Lulu a misunderstood masterpiece. I’m not going to do that. I actually do like the album a lot more than, well, everyone else in the world, apparently. But even I have to admit that it’s a maddening mess in constant danger of drowning in its own pretension. If I wasn’t so tuned into Lou Reed’s particular brand of artistic auto-eroticism, I might be just as scornful of this venture as everybody else is.
In the reviews I’ve read, Lou’s lyrics rank second only to his deadpan delivery as Lulu’s most derided aspect. I can absolutely see how verses like “To be dead / have no feeling / Be dry and spermless like a girl / I want so much to hurt you” could be off-putting to the uninitiated, and that doesn’t even get into the album’s astonishing amount of dog-sex imagery.
I think, however, that it helps to keep Lou’s inspirations and aspirations in mind. In recent years, Lou has seemed increasingly determined to be remembered as the musical equivalent of envelope-pushing fiction writers like William S. Burroughs and Hubert Selby. He goes so far as to compare himself directly to both men in his preamble to “Street Hassle” on 2004’s live Animal Serenade album. Viewed from that angle, the scatology and surreal sexuality of Lulu make a lot of sense. This may not be Lou’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, but it’s at least an ambitious attempt.
Of course, you could also say that of The Raven, Lou’s notorious, two-disc Edgar Allen Poe tribute album. I’ve been plenty vocal about my disdain for The Raven in the past. In the light of Lulu, though, I wonder if I haven’t judged it too harshly. Yes, a lot of the album consists of wildly overwrought melodrama and ill-conceived rewrites of Poe’s classic verses. But there are also plenty of strong, even excellent songs, all revolving around Lou Reed’s genuine adoration of an artist who shaped his world. It’s hard for me to hate too hard on that, even if I do find Lou collaborating with Fisher Stevens at least as off-putting as him teaming up with Metallica.
Speaking of those guys, I must admit that the duration of Lulu is as much time as I’ve ever spent in their company. I have nothing against Metallica specifically; it’s just that metal is one of the few genres that’s never really done anything for me. So it’s hard for me to join in the chorus of head-bangers who are either bemoaning the latest in a long string of Metallica disillusionments or complaining that the music on Lulu would be solid if not for that gibbering old man talking over it. From where I sit, the music sounds quite good, if a little overbearing at times. The hard rock grind makes a fine compliment to Lou’s ugly, pointed monologues and gives the whole proceeding the kind of dark edge that often hems his finest work. I probably prefer Lou’s usual late-period band – Fernando Saunders and Mike Rathke do well by him – but the only times I’m really turned off by the Metallica mash-up are when that dude (Lars, maybe? Is Lars the vocalist?) starts singing. He has a fine voice for metal, but his occasional verses change the vibe so much that I’m yanked right out of the moment.
Look, I’m not going to try convincing anyone to like or even tolerate Lulu. You’re well within your rights to dismiss this as the wrong-headed, overblown fiasco that it probably is. For my part, I’m choosing to embrace it. It’s like “Like a Possum” – another widely despised Lou Reed effort that I happen to adore – writ large and made even grosser. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, it probably isn’t. Heck, after a decade of watching Lou dabble in photo galleries, overstuffed stage shows, iPhone apps, t'ai chi and dog concerts, I'm happy just to see the man making music again. And hey, if nothing else, I hope that we can all agree that this is at least a step up from Hudson River Wind Meditations.