Mainly because it was simply impossible to imagine Lou Reed’s voice over Metallica’s gigantic riffing, the news that the aforementioned Heavy Metal titans had agreed to collaborate with the rock poet of the damned, raised a lot of questions, especially among Metallica’s fans, who have little actual knowledge of Lou Reed and his accomplishments. Both parties’ roads never seemed to have crossed and most importantly, there was no obvious way to accurately predict how this collaboration would sound.
“Lulu” is meant to divide and alienate, especially Metallica’s audience. To all metal fans who have learned that “Operation Mindcrime”, “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” or even “Tommy” is the best way to approach a concept album, this is a very tricky record, and they are not to blame. Lou Reed’s perception of this concept record is a minimalistic one, the music being just a little more than a background, however loud or complex it might be. Metallica have tried to retain their identity; as a result the thrash or Sabbath-like riffing is always present. At the same time they are determined not to spoil “Lulu” s’ nature, as seen through Reed’s eyes, so they tend to create a metal-friendly soundtrack that gets repetitive on purpose during each track, behind Lou’s narration. In the end, the result is more than puzzling to those who have grown with Metallica’s epic song structures or to those who are not accustomed to Lou singing over monstrous riffs.
“Lulu” however is a very different kind of monster. It’s definitely not your run of the mill rock/metal album. It is not just Metallica with Lou Reed on vocals. It is another dark tale (originally a play),and Reed’s approach to this reminds us clearly what made him a respectable figure among rock, punk and gothic audiences, even during the days of Velvet Underground. Almost a theatrical piece, a tragic story of a girl named Lulu, a story that has little room for bright lights and hopes. The whole project has been designed by Lou himself, whose prose expresses quite successfully the darkness in the hearts and minds of everyone involved in the plot of Lulu.
What is Metallica’s part in this? During the first songs of “Lulu” they seem to understand only a little better than their average fan what this record should sound like. In general, they get the idea that they should be the ship on which Lou would sail, but songs like “The View” and “Pumping Blood”, although they don’t represent the typical Metallica song structure, still include numerous riffs (“the View” also includes a solo), repetitive ones, so that they can serve their purpose as described earlier. James Hetfield, whose voice helps make the direction of the record a more musical/straight-forward one, doesn’t even avoid some notes that are off key, probably because he didn’t spend too much time recording vocals, in an act of spontaneity that is not standard Metallica (they haven’t done anything that isn’t perfectly calculated, even records like St Anger have a clear plan). His vocals give songs such as “Iced Honey” and “Brandenburg Gates” a punchier sound, and give us a hint that they may have had fun during the recordings indeed. Eventually, the band gets swollen in Lou’s greater vision and becomes the sonic pallet for which Lou is so proud as to declare that this collaboration is the best thing he ever did. Who could have thought a better series of punishing riffs for a song named “Frustration” during which the hero feels less man than the girl he hates as much as he wants to marry? When the record presents the protagonists’ anger, you couldn’t imagine a better way of anything backing Lou up than “Mistress Dread” s’ thrash holocaust or “Pumping Blood” s’ mean riffing. And when towards the end the heroes drown in sadness and confusion, Metallica set a scene of desperation in the minimalistic “Little Dog” and the angst-driven “Dragon”. Finally, “Junior Dad” is “Lulu” s cathartic track and as such, it is actually one of the best songs both Metallica and Lou Reed have put their names on, with Metallica’s sweet melodies caressing softly the arrangements of a string quartet.
Everyone has executed the plan well; Lou Reed has offered a vision for the five of them, a story and the basic guideline for the musical direction of the collaboration; only a few of Metallica’s riffs or melodies are not perfect, don’t serve the plot and do not honor their name. And “Lulu” is a record whose creators share an artistic vision which often exceeds, if not their own limits, then surely their fan base’s imagination.