Lou Reed, the musician best known for his work with the quintessential underground rock group the Velvet Underground, told the New York Times last week that he was extremely excited about his new album Lulu, a collaboration with Metallica due to be released in the U.S. Tuesday. Although never commercially successful, over the decades Reed has come to be known as one of rock’s most influential musicians due to his combination of hazy rock with deeply personal poetry. Lulu, however, represents a largely dangerous step out of the musical norm, even by Reed’s eccentric standards.
While Reed may have had the chance to play with the aggressive backing band of his dreams, his morose dead-pan vocal and psychedelic rock influenced ideas certainly do Metallica’s typical power precision no favors. The general concept of Loutallica — combining the styles of an avant garde genius with the raw energy of a thrash metal giant to tell the story of a serial femme fatale who becomes prostitute and eventually falls victim to Jack the Ripper — is fascinating enough, but the artists simply do not blend well.
Most songs seem to be built around Metallica’s standard musical formulas. The thrashing instrumental foundation of “Mistress Dread” could conceivably be left over material from one of the band’s early 1980s recording sessions for either Kill ‘Em All or Ride the Lightning. On the other side of the temporal spectrum, “Pumping Blood” could just as easily consist of scrapped ideas from Death Magnetic. Other songs, like “Iced Honey," invoke more of a classic rock feel. The music is heavy with a fair amount of intelligently designed melodic interludes, but is less polished than typical Metallica recordings, both in terms of performance and sound engineering.
Reed uses this solid if not hastily prepared background as a canvas for his noisy guitar work — sometimes reminiscent of his infamous Metal Machine Music project, an album that consisted solely of looped guitar feedback — and spacey continuum (a keyboard-like instrument) playing. These elements loosen up Metallica’s typically compact sound, which is not a wholly unfavorable change, but Reed’s singing, which could more accurately be described as recitation, cripples Metallica’s otherwise hardy musical momentum. Reed’s voice worked well with the fuzz and buzz of the Velvet Underground, and it still makes sense musically on droning feedback oriented segments of Lulu — the song “Dragon” provides a relatively listenable example — but overall the aging front man is not verbally dexterous enough to sing succinctly with an ensemble that is usually geared towards perfect timing. His lines of verse, which roughly follow vague melodies, fall too far behind the band and the groove becomes disjointed and almost confusing. On “The View,” this monotonous slurring turns a filthy half-time Metallica breakdown into a wobbling wall of sound.
Too often, Reed sounds like an old man mumbling words to a really cool song he used to be able to belt back in the day. Perhaps, if James Hetfield, Metallica’s lead singer, were assigned all vocal duties, the album would be more emotionally engaging. Certainly, his harsh staccato delivery would convey Reed’s darkly intriguing storyline more effectively. Imagining Hetfield growling, “I am the truth / The beauty that causes you to cross your sacred boundaries,” on “The View” fills my mind with a much more fulfilling sound. Most of the credit deserved for this album comes from the boldness the artists expressed in attempting the project. Reed still is and will always be a more than adept poet, but unfortunately he was out of his musical element this time.
Final Grade: C-