Ride the Frightening
On paper, a collaboration between Lou Reed, the godfather of art-rock, and Metallica, the kings of thrash metal makes little sense. Their underwhelming 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance of “Sweet Jane” gives scant insight as to why these legends thought they were a natural match. But 70-plus years of combined music experience and Hall of Fame credentials have earned them the benefit of the doubt. The artists’ own fervent endorsement of the project also gives credence to approaching Lulu with an open mind.
Lulu is based on two pieces by German playwright Frank Wedekind, about a young dancer who spirals into a world of sexuality and violence. Reed first suggested to Metallica that they record together following the R&R HOF performance as a way to update older songs, but then turned their collective attention to his own unfinished score. The end result has Metallica providing a jam-like instrumental backdrop for Reed’s chiefly spoken-word performance. James Hetfield chimes in with vocals on the refrains of most of the numbers.
The recording is rough. Hetfield’s voice sounds like a demo track, raw and unrehearsed, and the mix of Reed’s dry vocals often sounds like some guy is yelling in your ear while you’re trying to listen to new Metallica studio outtakes. The 69-year-old Reed sounds geriatric, which makes it all the more difficult to convince listeners that he is supposed to be portraying a young woman. Graphic tales of torture and abuse are difficult enough to stomach without being delivered in such an unsettling, cacophonous manner.
However, get deeper and deeper into Lulu and you catch glimpses of why Reed, Hetfield, and company were so excited. Some of the riffs are inspired in their simplicity, and the band might kick themselves for using them here (though they couldn’t be blamed if they recycled the best of them). Many song introductions are fascinating if not beautiful; the opening to “Cheat on Me” shows Metallica’s orchestral sensibilities at their most innovative. Conversely, songs like “Bradenberg Gate” and “Iced Honey” feature Reed’s 2-3 chord signature songwriting style. In the 19-minute finale, “Junior Dad,” Reed atones for the offenses of most of the other songs with a subdued and impassioned performance, and the final 10 instrumental minutes are designed to lull you into a satisfied stupor.
The unrefined quality of the recording is a distraction, and one wonders how the project would have turned out with more attention paid to effecting Reed’s vocals or perfecting the performances. At about 87 minutes spanning two discs, Lulu demands a commitment from the user not unlike reading Ulysses. It’s a lot of work, it’s unconventional, it’s not for everyone, but in the end you know you’ve experienced something unique.