Hidden In Plain Sight: Lulu

This is the review I wrote of this album in 2011 that Classic Rock refused to print. Told me to rewrite, but with the stipulation that the most I could give it was 7/10. Amazing to think it caused such uproar at the time.

Lou Reed & Metallica

Lulu

(Vertigo)

The arguments about this deliciously self-regarding project began the moment news of it escaped like bad gas from the manholes of New York City. The arguments will only grow more heated now everyone can at last hear it. That’s how it’s always been with great art. And make no mistake, this is rock at its’ artiest – and greatest.

Boohoo, go Lou’s fey army of post-punk disciples. Foul! Cry the metal community. Yet when all is said and done and you close your eyes and actually sit down and listen to what Reed and Metallica have made together, what is it we’re actually left with?

A masterpiece, that’s what. One that compels you to leave your preconceptions at its threshold as it ushers you into its darkly shimmering shadow.

The outline you already probably know. Reed, whose last solo album, The Raven, in 2003, was an outing of similarly collaborative ambitions based around the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe (contributors included Steve Buscemi, David Bowie, Willem Defoe, Laurie Anderson, and Antony Hegarty), had planned to come back this year with a set of songs inspired by two early 20th century plays by the German expressionist Frank Wedekind: Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. Both originally published in 1904 and set in Germany, Paris and London in the 1890s, the stories revolve around Lulu, a woman-for-all-seasons and magnet for the suffocating desires, backhand love and unfettered abuse of all the men, good and bad, who fall upon her. Until, finally, left with ‘no real feelings in my soul’, she meets Jack the Ripper, whose ‘love’ proves greatest and most fatal of all.

Along the way we get river-deep meditations on what WB Yeats described as “the only subjects seriously interesting to an adult” – sex and death. And this is nothing if not adult-oriented music.

Reed, as connoisseurs know, has built a career based on the hope that, as he says, “the intelligence that once inhabited novels and films would ingest rock.” But while his best work, with and without the Velvet Underground, has always benefited from that creative impulse, he has skated so close to self-parody so many times, his energy has often become dissipated, spread as thin and hollow as the mocking sneer that appears to hover over his work.

This is where Metallica come in. A genuinely clubbable for-real rock band – as opposed to the expensively hired hands Reed has spent the past 40 years working with – so straight in their musical ambitions it’s as if they have a pole up their collective spine, there’s never been much kidding going on in Metallica’s best music.

What they bring to Reed’s latest muse then is pure blissfully un-ironic fire; a fist of fury to replace the limp wrist. It makes for an absolutely shattering combination.

Recorded at Metallica’s studio in San Francisco, the pre-release hype has centred on how little afterthought or reworking went on in the studio. Yet what we encounter on first hearing Lulu are incredibly manicured soundscapes, layer upon layer of beautiful noise that leaves you dizzy and unsettled, enchanted and repulsed, wizened.

It’s not about individual tracks, though there are immediately several stand-outs like the chilling opener Brandenberg Gate (‘I would cut my legs and tits off,’ intones Lou, cutting straight to the chase) or Pumping Blood, whose demented violins reminds one of Street Hassle before building over several pendulum-like minutes to a full-on Metallica-sized aural assault.

It’s about the overall piece. A conceptual work that has to be absorbed as a whole to even begin to traverse its sonic foothills, at 90 minutes-plus this is not exactly an iPod-friendly trip. Unless, maybe, you happen to be horizontal by the time you get to final track Junior Dad, the final 12 of its skin-peeling 19 minutes taken over by seductive waves of drone that recall John Cale’s viola, Nico’s harmonium, and Cliff Burton’s beautiful bass-washes and neo-orchestral effects on instrumentals like Orion.

Not then the retrograde thrash classic Metallica’s more bovine followers might be hungering for. Nor the kind of fidgety, post-modern punk-poetry the broadsheet critics can easily assimilate. But, as Kirk Hammett recently put it: “something else. A new animal.”

One with teeth and claws…

Mick Wall

10/10

 

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