It's almost certainly a mark of my own perversity, but after listening to it two or three times, "Lulu", the new album that answers the question no one was asking--what would happen if Lou Reed and Metallica got together?--has quickly reached the point of fascination for me. It seems to be reviled as a howler in just about all quarters. But then we've always laughed at Lou, haven't we? Or with him--that deadpan visage behind the shades would never quite allow us be sure which, or even to what extent the joke was on us. I mean, it's probably an indicator of what an asshole I am, but I think "Take No Prisoners" is the funniest live rock album ever, especially when he's letting himself go on the subject of his critics. "Critics. What does Robert Christgau do in bed? You know, is he a toe fucka?" And later, warming to his theme: "These are the assholes who make or break the best rock bands that are very heavy and intelligent". Heavy and intelligent: maybe some intimation there that makes sense of this collaboration with Metallica...but I think another remark on the record is a truer harbinger: "I never said I was tasteful. I'm not tasteful."
When he wasn't making jokes, though, and even sometimes when he was, Lou was giving us records as rich as any novel: all of the Velvet Underground albums, "The Blue Mask", "New York", "Magic and Loss", etc., etc. Sometimes he did it in one song, like "Street Hassle" or "Coney Island Baby".
Don't get me wrong: there is some stuff on "Lulu" that I never need to hear again ("Little Dog" springs to mind). I dunno, maybe it's as awful as everybody says and I'll play it a few more times and then never again. But for now there are tracks here that are everything I could have wanted from a Lou/Metallica collaboration: "The View", "Mistress Dread", "Pumping Blood". It's got what Lou lovers want in a Lou album: the passion, the perversity, the personal. The brutally honest look at his own frailties and faults, not just for the purpose of self-laceration, but to learn to embrace them...and finally to love them, which is to say to love himself.
As for Metallica, one thing I've long dug about them is their musical curiosity, the way they get off on other types of music besides metal. They go to see Springsteen; they listen to the Beatles' "(I Want You) She's So Heavy" for the first time. James Hetfield has talked about these experiences, how they were quite outside the realm of the music that the band had grown up listening to, but how blown away they were once they gave it a chance. A lot of Metallica fans, at least the ones who moan on the Internet, seem to hate this very tendency in them. (Presumably these people are still typing from their darkened bedrooms in their mom's house beneath their "Kill 'Em All" posters. I know that's a snotty comment but I don't give a shit. Can you tell I've been listening to a lot of Lou lately?) I've seen some Lou fans crying on the Web as well, though not as many.
Oh well: puritanism of whatever stripe is deeply anti-rock & roll, not to mention a fucking drag.
So what perspective do I bring "Lulu", myself? Lou is amonst the handful of singers to whom I relate the most, right there with Dylan, Elvis Costello, Springsteen, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen. Angry, tough, abrasive, funny. And while I haven't kept up with what Metallica has been up to for, oh, at least a decade, there was a time when they were a fave rave. So I was happy to hear on "Lulu" that their crunch still satisfies: James Hetfield's teeth-baring vocals and Lars' drums, so pounding, so precise. Lou has always gotten off on guitars (I recall an offhand comment he made on one of Quine's bootlegged Velvet Underground tapes while riffing on an intro, something like, Can you imagine that with, like, a million guitars behind it?), and he's always made it a point to play with hot guitarists. Kirk Hammet certainly fits the bill, though the three guitars on "Lulu" (Lou, Hetfield and Hammet) mesh more than they solo, painting sonic textures while bassist Robert Trujillo drops depth charges. They're really playing as a group here, with Lou as bandleader. Listen to the interplay of the instruments on the prologue to "Cheat on Me". As for Lou's vocals, on "Lulu" he sounds younger, more tender and vulnerable, than he has in years, sometimes even sounding like he did with the Velvets.
What is "Lulu" about? I have no idea, beyond what I read about it's being based on a series of German plays. Lou's singing from the point of view of a woman for most of it. He gets really earthy here, almost as though the idea was to continue the song cycle begun on "Berlin", but maybe with the idea that that chronicle of abuse of various stripes (domestic, drugs) erred on the side of being rather too happy-go-lucky, all puppies and rainbows. Here he yelps about "the smell of your armpits, the taste of your vulva," elsewhere raving about "blood spurting from me" and a "colored man's dick".
In fact he lets you know where it's at right from the beginning: "I would cut my legs and tits off when I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski/It made me dream of Nosferatu trapped on the isle of Doctor Moreau/Oh wouldn't it be lovely/I was thinking Peter Lorre /When things got pretty gory as I crossed to the Brandenburg Gate". You can throw the towel in right there if you're so inclined. As for me, he had me with the entwining of Karloff and Kinski. I love my rockers to be film-literate.
As fun and mad as the thrashers are, they are not the best things here. "Lulu"s capper is a gentle song called "Junior Dad" that ends with a gorgeous extended coda of guitar washes that sound like cellos and violins. But then, as much as he's known for limning the limits of loathing, the contours of contempt, the secret of Lou's music is that it's really about love. It always has been. About the redemptive power of love in this world. A world of meanness, yes, which all honest art must reflect...but that's never the whole picture, must not be the whole picture in any art that is honest and whole. After all, it was Lou who warned us all those years ago about those "evil mothers" who would tell us that "everything is just dirt". I get the same feeling listening to "Junior Dad" as I do from "Set the Twilight Reeling" or "Coney Island Baby", and I think of the lines in that latter song which have always layed me out (emphasis mine): "When you're all alone and lonely in your midnight hour/and you find that your soul it's been up for sale...well, remember the princess who lived on the hill/who loved you even though she knew you was wrong."
And then the lines that cut to the heart of it, of what it's always been about: "And the glory of love, the glory of love might see you through."
"Junior Dad" contains these lines:
"Pull me up
Would you be my lord and savior
Pull me up by my hair
Now would you kiss me, on my lips
An island of lost souls
Sunny, a monkey then to monkey
I will teach you meanness, fear and blindness
No social redeeming kindness."
And then he whispers, in awe, in a moment of transcendence:
"Oh, state of grace."
Next up for Metallica? I was thinking I'd like to hear 'em back up Neil Young. Or you know, I've thought for years that the way Dylan's singing these days, he'd sound great fronting a death-metal band.