Soon after the country went into lockdown in March, I found myself listening obsessively to Lou Reed.
I’ve been a fan for years, of course. A music critic without intimate knowledge of the Velvet Underground has to turn in their gun and badge, post-haste. But I had never fully explored every dark nook and kinky cranny of Reed’s solo catalogue. Which is strange, because I am fascinated by deeply flawed albums that are both enhanced and undone by the perversity of their creators. And virtually nobody in rock history is more perverse, or has more deeply flawed and highly fascinating records, than sweet Lou.
Given that 2020 has been, shall we say, a bit of a soul-crushing horror show, opting to spend time with the likes of Berlin and The Bells and Magic And Loss and even Growing Up In Public and Ecstasy — I’m telling you, I went deep this year — might seem counterintuitive. Lou Reed, after all, is responsible for writing some of the grimmest and most disturbing rock songs ever. Berlin — his 1973 concept album about two drug addicts and lovers who descend into a depraved, chemical-addled mania — is probably the most depressing rock album ever made. It literally uses the sounds of screaming, hysterical children as backing vocals on a track. And that’s not even the darkest song on Berlin! That distinction belongs to “The Bed,” a first-person account of one of the protagonists taking her own life by slitting her wrists. Are we having fun yet??
If this seems like the opposite of anxiety-easing, escapist entertainment, consider that 2020 is one of the few years in which the bleakness of Lou Reed’s songs didn’t seem quite so foreboding. The heightened reality and melodrama of Berlin truly was preferable to the banal grind of government indifference slowly snuffing out the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. At least the tragedies of Lou Reed are imbued with poetry and twisted beauty. There was nothing artful about real life in 2020; it was just grueling, dumb, and cruel.
As I worked my way through Lou’s discography, warming myself over their white-hot mix of extreme misanthropy and sneaky humanism, one record was waiting for me at the end of the line. The most formidable one of all, his 2011 collaboration with Metallica and unwitting 87-minute swan song, Lulu.
If you know Lulu, you likely remember it as a punchline. Upon release, Lulu was widely reviled, quickly gaining a reputation as one of the most hated albums of the early 21st century. Listening to it now, it’s not hard to see why Lulu turned so many people off. The juxtaposition of Reed’s raspy, monotone rumble and James Hetfield’s overdriven arena-rock howling is so jarring that it borders on comic, a sensation underscored by the bludgeoning, melody-averse music and the near-spoken word song structures. It’s all pushed to the breaking point by running times that stretch as long as 20 minutes.
And then there’s the lyrics, which even by Lou Reed standards are extremely despairing, dwelling unyieldingly on sex, violence, obsession, self-hatred, self-degradation, and death. (Reed based his words on the work of 19th-century German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind, who is about as much fun as you would expect from a writer described as a “19th-century German expressionist playwright.”) The record’s first track, “Brandenburg Gate,” immediately lays down the gauntlet with these opening lines: “I would cut my legs and tits off / When I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski.” One of my favorite lyrics occurs in the song “Little Dog,” when Reed warbles, “If you got the money you can go to the top / The female dog don’t care what you got / As long as you can raise that / Little doggie face to a cold hearted pussy / You could have a taste.” Lulu, as you can see, was not made to produce radio hits.
Given Reed’s reputation as a contrarian, it was easy to reduce Lulu to a mere provocation, as if he were actually daring people to hate it. And hating Lulu is precisely what many people did. Pitchfork gave it a 1.0, calling it “exhaustingly tedious” and openly musing over whether it already deserved to be considered the worst album of all time. Writing for Grantland, Chuck Klosterman dismantled Lulu in hilarious fashion, summing it up as “an elderly misanthrope reciting paradoxical aphorisms over a collection of repetitive, adrenalized sludge licks” before arguing that a theoretical album in which “the Red Hot Chili Peppers acoustically covered the 12 worst Primus songs for Starbucks” would be preferable.
The metal community was even more flummoxed by Lulu. Blabbermouth.net was representative of the reaction: “Lulu is a catastrophic failure on almost every level,” the website declared, “a project that could quite possibly do irreparable harm to Metallica’s career.” Reed himself later claimed that Metallica’s fans had threatened to shoot him, though he characteristically claimed to not care. “I don’t have any fans left. After Metal Machine Music, they all fled. Who cares? I’m essentially in this for the fun of it.” As with all things Lou Reed, this is either an example of extremely dry humor or a completely earnest statement devoid of irony — or both things simultaneously.
Over at Metacritic, which compiles composite scores of reviews, Lulu has a score of 45 — pretty bad, but not exactly all time bad. In truth, some outlets were kind to the album, like Rolling Stone (Lou Reed is “still his own rock ‘n’ roll animal”) and The Atlantic, which dared to say that Lulu was “actually excellent.” If you dig deep enough, you will find albums about which nothing positive has ever been written, like Limp Bizkit’s Results May Vary — which, with a Metacritic score of 33, is critically despised even by Limp Bizkit standards — or Playing With Fire, the 2006 debut by Britney Spears’ ex Kevin Federline that has a Metacritic score of just 15.
But Lulu nevertheless stands out as a famously hated record because Lou Reed is one of the most acclaimed songwriters in rock history, and Metallica is the single most successful metal band of all time. Nobody expected greatness from Limp Bizkit or Kevin Federline, and they probably didn’t from Lou Reed and Metallica, weirdly together on the same record. But combining an important songwriter with the world’s most popular metal band was irresistible for rubberneckers in the music press. This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill misfire made by mediocre talents. Lulu appeared to be an instant classic of hubristic miscalculation, a larger-than-life turkey that was just too fun to not hate.
You might still feel that way. But I’m here to say that Lulu deserves to be reassessed, and not only because David Bowie once called it a masterpiece. In terms of rock albums, it’s a complete original. There’s still no record I can think of that’s quite like it in either Reed or Metallica’s catalogues. And yet it also feels like an unheralded but appropriate capstone on Reed’s historically uncompromising career.
A crucial mistake that many people made with initially engaging with Lulu — including me — is thinking of it as being as much of a Metallica record as a Lou Reed one. The likelihood that you will dislike Lulu goes up exponentially if you regard it as a Metallica album. It doesn’t have any of the attributes that you would associate with the kinetic radio rock of Metallica or Master Of Puppets or even the Load/Reload albums. Those records are packaged with wall-to-wall musical napalm bombs, designed to detonate upon immediate impact with immediate riffs and invigorating hooks.
Lulu is determinedly not that. On that album, Metallica lumbers extemporaneously, latching upon a single punishing riff and pounding it over and over (and over and over). The songs aren’t catchy, they are knowingly painful while also maliciously seeking to dispense pain. This is that say, Lulu is a Lou Reed record through and through, in which Metallica is utilized strictly as a backing band to convey their patron’s vibe and musical ideas. When heard in the context of Reed’s work — specifically albums like Berlin and Metal Machine Music as well as the longer, rambling, and more theatrical tracks on late-period LPs like 2000’s Ecstasy — Lulu seems less like an odd curveball and more like a natural progression.
An underrated aspect of Reed’s music is how he blurs the line between extremely grotesque narratives and deadpan comedy in a manner that is more akin to the films of David Lynch than rock ‘n’ roll songs (or the commercial metal of Metallica). Take one of the album’s best tracks, “Pumping Blood,” which is so gory and outré that it goes beyond regular horror and into pitch-black comedy (while also being pretty horrific). “Blood in the foyer, the bathroom, the tea room, the kitchen, with her knives splayed,” Reed sings, “I will swallow your sharpest cutter / Like a colored man’s dick.” This, again, is an album that goes out of its way to offend mainstream sensibilities. But behind the bluster and the provocation are Reed’s most open expressions of vulnerability ever on record.
The one song on Lulu that even haters like Pitchfork and Klosterman copped to kinda sorta liking is the final track, “Junior Dad.” It is also, certainly not coincidentally, the most melodic and accessible number, even though it drones on (there is a literal extended drone at the end of the song) for more than 19 minutes. Over a lovely “Fade To Black”-style creep, Reed sings not about blood or copulating dogs but his own deepest, darkest fears and desires. It’s the unexpected tenderness after a grueling stroll through hell, a moment of grace that feels like a deathbed confession, a man looking up to heaven and wondering if there is a place for him there. “Would you come to me if I was half drowning? / An arm above the last wave? / Would you come to me? Would you pull me up? / Would the effort really hurt you? / Is it unfair to ask you, to help pull me up?”
I wonder if Lulu would have been received differently had Lou Reed died immediately after it was released — like David Bowie right after Blackstar — rather than two years later. Heard now, it has an undeniable melancholy that it didn’t have in 2011, because the end-of-life reflective aspects of the record are so much more apparent.
“I’ll always remember his fragility,” Lars Ulrich wrote after Reed died in 2013. In a piece for the Guardian, he revealed that Reed — as he was with most people — was stand-offish with Metallica initially. It was only after he learned to trust his collaborators that he let his guard down.
“When people talk, it comes from their brain; I don’t know where his words came from, but they came from somewhere else,” Ulrich concluded. “Emotional, physical, everything – it really resonated with me. I wanted to give him strength, and I think Metallica gave him strength. His being was so beautiful once that guard went away, and it was childlike.”
That heart behind the tough facade is what I connect with on Lulu, and it’s why the album feels better suited to 2020 than perhaps it was to 2011. In a year in which we’ve all experienced so much pain and loss, I take solace from a record that confronts the worst parts of being alive head on, in a manner that is so fearless and stubbornly vital that it reminds me of the best parts of being alive.