Steff: Juliet is a close friend and old flatmate of mine, and when she emailed to ask if she could write a review in response to the overly critical reception of Lulu, I was stoked! For every person who hates an album, there’s another person who equally passionately enjoys it, and I love being able to find something to love about any album. Read what she has to say about this album and add your comments, but remember to abide by the comment policy of intelligent replies only.
“Why is this surprising?” probes Lou Reed, as only he can. “An odd collaboration would be Metallica and Cher. That would be odd. Us – that’s an obvious collaboration.”
But I am surprised by Lulu—not only because it’s far, far better than all its critics are willing to admit—but because this completely unorthodox approach of collaborating to create a heavy (metal) concept album, once we’re willing to give it a go, really works. Some might argue that Metallica have championed a career upon making unpredictable moves, and therefore, that they have been doing this all along, but what Lulu does so cleverly is expose the changing landscape of the genre. I think this is why Lulu has encountered the criticism it has. It has surprised its audience. It does not profess to be a metal album, it does not sit with what its fan base expected from Metallica (the last collaboration they did was with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1999), and Lou’s unconventional lyrics have perhaps upset the timid.
I find that it sits well to think of it as a concept album. The idea of the concept album has been around a long time—think Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, The Who’s Tommy, King Diamond’s The Eye etc… A concept album does more than just deliver a cleverly marketed theme and narrative, it tells its story through its production values and its aesthetic.
Metallica’s relationship with Lou Reed evolved out of a collaboration for the Rock n’ Roll hall of Fame Anniversary celebrations in 2009 in New York City. The two performed a heavy arrangement of Lou Reed’s ‘Sweet Jane’, out of which, Lars Ulrich ironically recalls, a vague parting agreement (in a car-park) was made to record an album in the future.
The album tells the story of Lulu: a desecrated woman who ultimately is murdered by Jack the Ripper. The story is inspired by two plays by Frank Wededkind: Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box.
Lulu—I think—serves the format of the concept album in that it literally constructs and then dethrones its protagonist. This is where genre gets thrown out the window—it doesn’t matter whether or not this sounds or feels like heavy metal, rock or alternative, instead the compositions play with the musical features which best serve Lulu’s narrative —the woman whom the antagonists (in this case, the very musicians who play the music) have in their lives met many times. Hetfield smirks knowingly at Reed’s suggestion in an interview, that Lulu is the destructive woman they have all known at some point. Lulu becomes the woman who is vile, wanton and sacrificed, and her antagonists tell her story with a mixture of fear, love, hate and loathing.
Most of all, it’s not important whether this is “Loutallica”, Lou Reed singing with Metallica, or a narrative soundtrack set for the theatre. What’s interesting, is that it is impossible to distinguish between the guitar parts played by James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett, the distorted guitars wail and speak on their own, as though, Metallica have almost dropped their musical identities for the sake of this project. The album is in the favourable egoless position of serving the music rather than the recognisable stylistic moments of each band member. The most obvious effect is that Hetfield only sings on the songs which call for his additional vocals, most notably ‘Cheat on Me’ and ‘The View’ which seems the most like the style of songs which might appear on a Metallica record. Lou Reed brought his lyrics to the table, where James and Lars constructed together–Metallica style–the riffs to accompany the tracks. Metallica’s formal song-writing process ended here, where they recorded the tracks free-form, some in a single take, where all the musicians performed together in the same studio.
Lulu is quite unlike a Metallica album, which they self- describe as being highly produced where every riff and layer, of every song is textured and thought-through, often recorded over and over again. Lulu’s energy reflects the live recording sessions, where the musicians literally recorded the tracks all together, sitting the same room facing each other: jamming like teens. The result is that the listener can feel the reverberations between the lyrics and the instrumentals. The effect is perhaps hampered a little by the awareness that this is a collaboration of two distinct musical personalities, and may make the listener feel uneasy. But to me, this effect is Lulu’s magic: the disturbing and fleeting lyrical outbursts [Degrade me/ Do you have any waste for me to eat?] , the highly distorted guitars as further layers of inaudible voices are not Metallica’s usual sound effects, but here, they communicate exactly as they should.
‘Pumping Blood’ is a stand out track, both lyrically, and sonically. It serves as the song which signals Lulu’s death with her murder/suicide, and has an incredible lyrical intensity: [Swallow my razors/Oh God/Blood is Spurting out of me/Oh Jack, I beseech you!/In the end it was an ordinary heart…] which builds into a climactic, panicked rush, seeping into a deep depression in Mistress Dread, continuing the femme fatale’s legacy after her death.
It’s quite incredible that after such a short collaboration, the month it took them to put the record together, that the album has such a strong and consistent aesthetic of its own. Never before has a heavy album offered such an intimate view of a female protagonist, let alone through the vehicle of a metal concept album, and who would’ve thought Lou Reed would be the one to do it.
The opening track begins with Lou’s acoustic guitar on ‘Brandenburg Gate’. James singing: [Small town girl] feels as though the song might become a 90’s rock anthem; but then again, how many 90’s rock songs would dare to open an album with the line: [I would cut my legs and tits off?]
‘The View’ in context is appreciatively heavy. It is not by any means representative of the rest of the album, but it is the most ‘Metallica-like’, so I can see why it was chosen as the pre-release single. There is one thing though: I must have missed the metaphysics class where James Hetfield became the essence of the table. (James singing Lou’s odd lyric: [I am the table!] will undoubtedly haunt him for a while.) Based on this, I think the un-heard album was judged far too quickly by critics. You really must hear ‘Little Dog’ which is almost a solo bass line, grungy, and low, taking the listener to the depths of a man’s obsession with his protagonist.
‘Cheat On Me’ feels like a Hetfield composition through and through. The lyric: [Why do I cheat on me?] makes the listener immediately retrospective, as well as being catchy and soul-searching.
And finally, ‘Junior Dad’ is a very moving track (whether you have a broken childhood or not!), layered with an accompanying string ensemble that is weaved throughout the album. It is not until this last track that you really feel their presence, though–the album’s 19 minute outro feels inspired by Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings—the tear-jerking kind that will get you every time. The strings literally disappear into the ether as the track fizzles out, giving the listener the chance to assimilate the brutal story which has just unfolded. It will surprise you—it’s more autobiographical than you think.
Review by Juliet Trevethick
Lulu is released 1st November 2011. You can listen to the album on the Lou Reed and Metallica website. I’d be interested to know what you all think.