Lulu is a complete failure on every tangible and intangible level of its existence. From conception to collaboration, production to execution, album art to lyrics, music to almost every part of the album-making process– including the nefarious masked villain who Inception-ed this idea into Lou Reed’s hapless cerebral cortex while he slept– it’s a failure. For most of us, however, this is not the big reveal of Lulu. This album was tried and sentenced by the court of public opinion well before its forthcoming trial date, as it were. Slowly drawing the curtain back on the track “The View” made matters worse — much worse — and most people sold their stock but quick, leaving nothing left for Lou Reed and Metallica to do but limp out of the gates and hope they’ll be taken out to pasture in lieu of a more grisly fate.
Fail? Yes. Bad? Not always. This kind of failure is such a glorious, mythic, supernova failure that it’s worthwhile to hear it happen. After aging artist playtime is over, what’s left are a few slivers of good, boldly highlighted like a few flecks of gold in a bag of discarded colored dicks, used tampons, and dried semen. Oh, you weren’t ready for that just then? Too bad. Neither was I when I heard those lines spoken on Lulu. Suit up.
Lulu is essentially a piece of shock art that’s littered with vulgarity both lyrical and musical. It reads like a misguided Bukowski impersonation and sounds like field recordings taken from Guitar Centers across America. Its source material are two 19th century plays by German playwright Frank Wedekind. Together, they spin a lovely tale about a girl, Lulu, who is sexually abused by her father, becomes a teenaged prostitute, marries a bevy of men (most of whom wind up dead), and then . . . falls in love with and is murdered by, purportedly, Jack the Ripper. It’s bananas, and, as a non-theatrical musical adaption, completely untenable.
The whole concept-heavy album thing — so, so predictably — blocks any empathy with Reed over the course of the 90+ minutes of Lulu. Knowing that the majority of lyrics aren’t originating from Reed’s addled-as-hell mind/soul is not only disheartening, but stymies the pathos a concept album with plot and characters seeks to create. Though maybe it’s good to temper bons mots like “her Kotex jukebox” and “sperm-less like a girl” and “the taste of your vulva and everything on it” with a 3rd person narrative.
These stretches of obtuse and icky lyricism eventually become at best a wash of caustic anger and at worse, hilarious. This wound goes unaided by producers (Reed, Metallica, et al.), as Reed’s voice is awkwardly abandoned on top of the mix, adding to the tonnage of proof that this Metallica/Lou Reed project is more orange juice/toothpaste than anyone had ever imagined. The most egregious stretches of the album come when Reed is at his most verbose, stumbling around a melody for minutes at a time, spouting off psycho-sexual lyrics about Wedekind’s story above tedious and boilerplate Metallica riffs. The gears grind loudest on “Pumping Blood” and “Dragon”, which simply cannot be tolerated more than once.
Finding solace in the music won’t get you anywhere, either. It’s worlds apart from melodic orchestral experimentation of Berlin, White Light/White Heat, or any Reed album, Metal Machine Music included (and preferred!). And in this corner, Metallica lolls around in an extended palm-muted parody that is neither dynamic nor trance-like. The riffage coming from Hetfield and Hammett is tired, and you’d think under the auspices of Reed, Metallica would grab the opportunity to remind us that they’re musicians that can exist out of the corner they’ve Metallica’d themselves into. You’d think so, but the best-of riffs they trot out would prove you wrong.
Those flecks of gold though? It’s mostly on “Junior Dad”, the coda to this sordid affair, the 20-minute, open-5ths finale, where Reed transcends Lulu and writes a beautiful song about insecurity, age, love, and trust. “The greatest disappointment/age withered him and changed him,” he sings, before repeating “the greatest disappointment.” Reed is finally relaxed. It’s just about the saddest song to come out this year, especially in the context of the previous 70 minutes of Lulu, Reed’s career, the universe…just everything. They always say to leave them with a fantastic final scene and they’ll forget about the rest of the movie, but Lulu will not get off that easy.
You’ll hear commentators from Reed’s camp and Metallica’s camp say that “The worst part about this [Metallica/Lou Reed] album is that [Metallica/Lou Reed] is also on the album.” They are absolutely correct. The failure spawned in the elevator pitch and never took its leave until the orchestral drones of the final track had subsided. It’s a remarkable album in that Reed and Metallica just did whatever the hell they wanted to and put it out there, and it takes more risks than the majority of music that has come out this year. It’s a shame it never even had a chance.
Essential Tracks: “Junior Dad”, “Iced Honey”
Feature artwork by Drew Litowitz.